A starry road trip (just a mirror for the stars …)

Warning! Dear reader of the English version of this blog, please keep in mind that English is not my native language and forgive me for the poor grammar/style of my English writing. If you speak French, I strongly recommend you read the French version that is available here.

It’s not the destination, but the journey …

The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.
Don Williams, Jr.

Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.
Greg Anderson

Still, it’s better to have a cool destination.
Jean-François Goût

For the second note of this blog, after climbing Mount Fuji in my very own way, I’m taking you with me on a road trip across the USA, from Bloomington (Indiana) to Mayhill (New Mexico). Relax, fasten your seat belt and follow me on this 8-day journey that involves 2,700 miles (4300 Km), 3 time zones, two and a half telescopes and two feet of snow.

Introduction: Why a road trip to New Mexico ?

When I realized that I could not go home for Christmas (it would have taken too long to get a new Visa) I decided that this year –unlike the two previous ones- I would not stay in Bloomington for Christmas break. For those of you who don’t know Bloomington, it’s a great place to live, I have some amazing friends here, but for Christmas everyone goes home and the city becomes empty and sad (unless you like talking to squirrels, who are basically the only living creatures you will met in the streets of Bloomington around Christmas time). Because I love star gazing, I decided to find a place where the sky is beautiful and the night is dark, far away from the cities and their light polluted sky (http://www.darksky.org/). Since my first telescope (a 60mm refractor offered by my grand-father when I was not even 10) I’ve bought quite a few telescopes and kept dreaming of bigger telescopes and better skies. So, when I discovered that a place called New Mexico Skies (yes, it’s in New6mexico, how did you guess?) offered a 30-inch telescope (the kind of telescope that costs several thousands of dollars to buy …) for rent under one of the best skies in the USA it was obvious that this was the place for me to go on Christmas break. By the end of July, everything was planned: I would go to New Mexico Skies, stay there for two nights (Dec 26 and 27th), rent their big telescope for one night and use my own telescope (a 10-inch dob) for the other night, do some more star gazing on the road, visit some cool stuff in New-Mexico, stop on the way in Oklahoma City to visit my friends Zach and Leigh, stop on the way back at Clayton Lake to see the fossilized dinosaur tracks and do some more star gazing and finally go back to Bloomington just in time to celebrate the new year with my friends . Sounds like a solid plan. And guess what? Almost all of that happened…

From Bloomington to Mayhill

Friday, December 23rd 2011, it’s 3pm and I’m waiting for someone from enterprise rent a car to come pick me up so that I can go get the car that I rented. Everything is ready, I have a ton of stuff to load in the car. Camera and lenses? Check. Telescope accessories? Check. Tons of music CDs to listen while driving? Check (thanks Seb and Cécile for lending me these CDs. That helped a lot to pass the time while driving). As I said, everything is ready.

While skyping with a friend, I double check that I did not forget anything and start to feel extremely impatient about hitting the road. Finally, the driver is there and takes me to the rental agency. Bad news: they are out of GPS, but hopefully the North branch has one left that I can have. By 3.40pm the car is loaded, I head to the North branch to get the GPS and by 4pm I’m on the road to Oklahoma City. On this first day of travel I can enjoy a beautiful sunset while driving through the South of Illinois, the skyline of Saint Louis by night and the crazy Christmas illuminations of Santa’s Magical Kingdom in Eureka, Missouri.

Nothing really exciting until I enter the state of Oklahoma. I was about 500 miles away from Bloomington, somewhere in Oklahoma, when I suddenly realized that I forgot something very important: the mount of my telescope! In other words, I’m carrying a telescope that is totally unusable, useless… Well, don’t panic, I will have 24 hours in Oklahoma City to find a solution…

And now a piece of advice for travelers: if you stop in Stroud (Oklahoma), do not go to the Sooner Motel unless you like cold and dirty motel rooms with no hot water. OK, I like to complain, but at least it was cheap, I had internet access and I was just an hour away from Oklahoma City, so I was happy anyways.

It gets complicated …

Saturday, December 24th. I get up in my cold motel room, check out and get on the road again. The morning light illuminates the plain covered with a thin layer of frost. After spending most of the time driving at night the previous day, I really enjoy this view. It’s 10am when I knock on the door of my friends’ apartment, just in time for breakfast. Unfortunately, I don’t even have time to take off my coat that my cell phone starts vibrating: it was New Mexico Skies calling to tell me that they had a lot of snow over the past couple of days and that, as a consequence, they could not get the telescope out. On top of that, the last 1.5 miles of road leading to the observatory are covered with snow and I could never drive through it without a 4 wheeler. We agreed that I would call them back the next day to figure out what to do. At this point, I started to fear that this entire road trip would become a disaster. I could not even use my own telescope somewhere on the road since I forgot the mount. With the help of my friend Zach I tried to find a telescope mount for rent in Oklahoma City … without success. In the end, I decided to postpone my stay at New Mexico Skies by one day so that they would have more time to remove the snow. I was actually ready to help them, spend couple of hours shoveling some snow if that could help. And as for the road issue, I could always park the car and hike the last 1.5 miles.

Christmas in Oklahoma

Living abroad is awesome, but it also comes at a cost and has a couple of drawbacks. The first of them: being far from your family. It is inevitable, at times you feel homesick. And the worse time of the year for that is of course Christmas. When everyone goes home to visit their family while your family is on the other side of the ocean, it’s important to have good friends who can become your adoptive family for a couple of days. And because I’m a lucky bastard, I have such friends!!! Spending Christmas with Zach and Leigh and their families was simply awesome. On the menu: deep fried turkey, chugging beers (in each others face, of course), the best beef meat I ever had, tons of good food, lots of cheerfulness … everything I needed to forget the reality that I was several thousand kilometers (yes, that’s also several thousand miles) away from home and feel good. And since the sky was clear, we even used my solar telescope to look at the solar flares (no, I did not forget the mount for this telescope, and no, I could not have used this mount for the big telescope, it is way to small).

(And I’m waiting on Zach to send me the pictures of the deep fried turkey).

From Oklahoma City to Mayhill

Monday, December 26th. After two awesome days in Oklahoma City, it’s time for me to get on the road again. I have a ten hours drive to go to Roswell, the last big city on the way to Mayhill. I did not see any flying saucer nor any aliens but I enjoyed the beautiful conjunction of Venus with a thin crescent of moon just after sunset.

While I was parked at the New Mexico tourist information center to take pictures of the Moon and Venus, I call New Mexico Skies to find out about the situation with the snow. Answer: everything is fine, the telescope’s platform is clear and so is the road. I won’t even have to shovel snow (not even funny). I can now finish the drive to Roswell on an icy road, knowing that this journey will not be a failure.

By 9pm I’m in Roswell, and this time I choose the Super8 motel (which is a palace compared to the Sooner motel). I did not have much time to visit Roswell, but just driving on main street you will quickly realize that aliens are the big attraction here. Flying saucers and aliens are everywhere, even on the parking of my motel.

Tuesday, December 27th. Mayhill is only two hours drive away from Roswell. I have time to go visit the White Sands National Monument before going to the observatory. The dunes are partly covered in snow and kids enjoy sledding on the slopes while I hurry up to take pictures.

After leaving White Sands, I drive trough a beautiful mountainous area, pass Cloudcroft (the last village before the observatory) and its ski resort, to arrive at New Mexico Skies in the middle of the afternoon.

I quickly felt in love with this place. The sky is pure deep blue, the mountains are covered in snow, all you can see when looking around is telescopes domes, trees and snow… My cabin is very cozy, everything is perfect!

At 7pm, I meet Lynn (the boss) on the observation deck and she explains to me how to use the big dobsonian telescope (the big 30-inch telescope was not available, it was so cold that the electronic in this telescope would fail during the night, so I had to use the other Dob which is a 25-inch telescope).

As soon as the explanations are over I rush to take pictures of the moon which is setting behind the mountains in the distance. The view is just amazing (see the pictures below).

And when assembling all the pictures in a time-lapse, we can make a short movie of this moon set:

After that, I set up my camera with its fish eye lens on a tripod to take pictures of the milky way while I’m enjoying the views at the nebulae, galaxies and star clusters trough the telescope (the big telescope I was renting was dedicated to visual observing, it was not possible to take pictures with this one because it does not have a tracking device).From time to time I go check that everything is fine with my camera which is automatically taking pictures on its tripod, just a couple of yards (~ a couple of meters) away from the telescope. To make another time lapse, my camera took a first set of 310 pictures, each of them being a 40 seconds exposure time, covering a total of 3.5 hours of the night sky’s rotation. Here is the result (to be viewed in full screen and HD please):

You can see several planes going through the sky and also -if you look very carefully- a shooting star in Orion (in the upper right corner) at 14 seconds.

I made another series of 367 pictures with a different orientation (facing the West this time, the first time lapse was facing the Est) and in which you can see me in the foreground, using the big telescope before parking the telescope and going to take a nap (while the camera kept taking pictures):

My initial plan was to sleep 3 hours and come back to use the telescope for another two hours before dawn. But I was so tired, that I simply went to turn off the camera and went back to bed.

For the second night of star gazing,I will rent again the telescope from New Mexico Skies and try to do both visual observations and take pictures. But this time, I will use my CG4 equatorial mount (the small mount that I use for the solar telescope but which is to small to carry my big telescope) so that I can track the objects while taking pictures of them. Like that, I can take really long exposure shots that will reveal the very faint stars and nebulae. I won’t give more details about astrophotography, this is not the place. Just keep in mind that taking pictures of the deep sky objects is quite challenging.

Here are the results. All these pictures were taken with a Canon eos 350d modified to have an enhanced sensitivity to hydrogen alpha. Let’s start with the famous horse head nebulae (addition of 110 pictures, each of them being a 1 minute exposure time, Tamron 70-300 zoom lens on 300mm).

The great Orion nebula, aka M42 (addition of 72 pictures of 4, 12 and 30 seconds, Tamron 70-300 at 300mm):

Now let me show you something cool on the series of pictures I took of this nebulae. I was not expecting this, but on most of the pictures you can see the traces of geostationary satellites. While the equatorial mount was tracking the stars to compensate the rotation of the earth, the position of the satellites relative to the background sky was changing so that they appear as faint lines on these pictures. On the next 4 pictures, you can see 3 of them passing in front of the Orion nebulae (3 parallel lines in the pictures). Just keep in mind that these guys are orbiting ~36,000 Km away… You will probably need to look at the full resolution pictures to see the satellites.

The next picture is the entire constellation of Orion, with the Barnard’s loop, a very faint nebulae that circles the left side of Orion. Try to find the horse head nebulae and m42 on this pictures (they are there, but appear much smaller because this picture was taken with a 50mm lens).

I also quickly saluted the seven sisters (the Pleiades), although I did not have to much time, so the picture clearly lakes exposure time to have more signal:

And to finish, let’s have a look at the milky way before it sets behind the mountains of New-Mexico:

The next one shows the setup that I used to take the pictures. Note the cardboard box. It contains the batteries to power my equatorial mount and they are wrapped in a shirt + a winter hat + a sweater to protect them from the cold.

That night, I went to bed at ~4am with the eyes full of images of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters … and also knowing that the memory card of my camera was also full of cool images. I would have loved to stay up until dawn, to see more deep sky objects that were still too low on the East horizon but I needed to get some sleep for the 10 hours drive I would have to do to go back to Oklahoma City.

Back to reality

Thursday, December 29th, I leave New-Mexico Skies in the morning with only one thing in mind: I want to come back!!! On the road I realize that the terrible smell I can enjoy for at least 100 miles between New-Mexico and Texas is caused by intensive livestock farming. When I see these thousands of cows and smell the odor that goes with (I want to precise that I grew up in a farm, so I’m not easily shocked by the smells from the farms, but these are industrial farms like I had never seen before) I suddenly loose all appetite for steaks 😦

I spend the night in Oklahoma city, hosted again by my friends Zach and Leigh. Finally, for the last day of this road trip, I have to drive 12 hours to go back to Bloomington. I can enjoy another beautiful sunset.

But seriously, 12 hours of driving … it’s looooong. 36 hours and 1,300 miles (2,100 Km) after I left Mayhill, I arrive in Bloomington at 1am, exhausted but happy. Now it’s time to get some rest before partying for the new year (and eat some dam good steaks, but that’s another story …). So, happy new year to everyone and see you on the road again!

Jeff

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2 Responses to A starry road trip (just a mirror for the stars …)

  1. Pingback: Sur la route des étoiles | On the road again

  2. Verena Ohms says:

    Jeff, this is a wonderful blog! When I read it I could hear your voice in my head telling the story and it felt like I traveled with you on that trip. The pictures are so amazing that I can hardly believe you took them (although I know of course that you’re talented). I hope you’ll keep up posting your adventures so that when I’m back home I will still be able to follow your interesting stories.
    Cheers!
    Verena

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