The closer I got towards the Salisbury Star Party on Thursday, the heavier the rain battered against my windshield, although I suppose I was asking for trouble going camping, in England, on the last weekend in October. I arrived in a slightly eased off downpour and went in search of a promised cup of tea in a caravan with Neil and Iain, which was much appreciated. I then returned the favour by dragging them out in the drizzle to help me put up my new five man tent, which I learned when I had unpacked it in the garden at home the previous weekend and subsequently drowned in a sea of canvas, that it also needed about five men to put it up. With the "super-tent" looking and feeling palatial compared with last year's flimsy festival tent (this year also included the luxury of electricity and "central heating", AKA a fan heater) it wasn’t long before I was being dragged (kicking and screaming) to the pub. Still cloudy I cooked an epic amount of chilli for a slightly less epic number of people back behind the four solid walls of Darren’s static caravan, with musical accompaniment by Iain on the guitar. After the long drive it was a fairly early night, but I did enjoy a solitary wonderment at Orion, Jupiter and friends at about 3am. In an attempt to share this with someone other than the less than appreciative nearby hedgehog I announced in a loud whisper to my tent mate that it was so clear I could see Jupiter’s red spot with my naked eye, but such an outrageous proclamation in the middle of the night was met with the disbelief it deserved.
The next day was like waking up on an entirely different planet. It was warm! The grass had dried out enough to sit on while I brewed up a coffee and a bacon sarnie on my camping stove, and it was TOO HOT to sit in the tent. It was also TOO HOT for jeans and jumpers and I started thinking maybe suncream might have been a good idea. It was exciting to see so many solar telescopes appear from underneath waterproof covers and marvel at prominences and sunspots galore throughout the day. And as the sun sunk down in a beautiful orangey-pink sunset, solarscopes were swapped for an impressive array of nighttime observing kit... and in rolled the cloud. And off we rolled to the campsite bar. Sat around the glow of red light torches later on we were treated to a few gaps in the clouds and played “guess the star”, and were lucky enough to see a handful of meteors too. Admitting defeat at about midnight, a shout of “clear skies” went around at 5am and I stumbled bleary-eyed out of my tent to admire about 30 minutes of crystal clear skies. Of course, grabbing my camera and tripod from my tent and pointing it skyward with the intention of snapping a few star-trails immediately summoned the clouds and off I went back to bed.
Saturday was also dismally grey but with a day’s worth of astro-activities scheduled, no one seemed to mind. I kicked off the speaker programme with a short roundup of some of the news stories I’ve been reporting on recently at Astronomy Now (which was also another good excuse to waffle on about my recent trip to Chile), and the audience also enjoyed talks from Ninian Boyle on some interesting historical and cultural aspects of constellations; Nick Howes on his comet and asteroid finding spree, Sally Russell on her beautiful sketches of the Moon and planets, and Damian Peach on his spectacular planetary imaging. We then tumbled into an inflatable planetarium and enjoyed a short film on black holes. The day culminated with a hog roast, where I negotiated a second helping as my speaker fee :-)
With sleet now falling there was only one thing for it – concentrate on the party aspect of star party and head to the pub. It was there I realised why I love star parties: where else in England on a Saturday night would such a randomly thrown together group of campers be having passionate debates about space travel, heavy bombardment eras in extrasolar systems, string theory and demonstrating atomic energy levels with ripped up beer mats one minute, and swapping astro-tattoo ideas and astro-crush admissions the next, all over copious amounts of the local brew? Talking about astronomy and space was certainly the next best thing to actually observing it, and it didn’t seem to matter that we were clouded out for three nights in a row.
Pulling down the tent this morning in as much drizzle as it was put up in and bundling it into the car somewhat damp, and then having to spend two hours in its presence on the drive home after it had festered for a few hours while I hung out in Salisbury for post-star party recovery with Dave, I am not looking forward to seeing what might have grown in it overnight, and am hoping for clear skies this week just so I can dry everything out! But for now, I'm kicking back and taking advantage of that "extra" hour to finish the remainder of a bottle of wine that was opened last night, and toasting the star party organiser Darren Kitson for putting on another great event...and a cheers in the direction to my astro buddies old and new, too!