RTMC '98

Glenn LeDrew

The Riverside Telescope Makers Conference convened for its 30th session this past Memorial Day weekend. As before, the location was Camp Oakes, a YMCA facility near Big Bear Lake, California. From Los Angeles' LAX it's about a three-hour drive, up in the mountains at 6,500 feet (although you exceed 8,000 ft getting there). This was my first visit, and I had joined up with Cyanogen Productions to help out with video and CD sales, as well as to flog my recently manufactured Astrophoto Whiz Wheel. After leaving smog-enshrouded L.A. on Friday morning, I was amazed at the clarity of the deep blue sky up in the San Bernardino Mountains. And it stayed clear like that all weekend. We were told that a couple of weeks earlier there was a good snowfall, but by the time we arrived it was dry and dusty. There were patches of snow hanging around in shaded areas and on higher slopes, but not at the camp itself. The whole layout was unlike that at Starfest. Instead of one large field, there were a number of smaller clearings with a multitude of paths among the pines connecting them.

The Cyanogen booth was set up near the entrance in the main hall, vying for space with a couple of other vendors. From this strategic location we could snare traffic milling around the washrooms. During the Friday evening informal presentations I showed slides of the 5-inch binoculars I built for Paul Comision, and described the operation of the Whiz Wheel (again using slides). The day before, Doug George demonstrated his MaxIm DL software at a CCD conference, and on Saturday Peter Ceravolo talked about large format astrographs.

While the rest of the gang was in town wining and dining and being feted by Sky and Telescope magazine, I stayed at the camp to observe the sky and see what others were up to. Dinner was enjoyed out-of-doors at that fine establishment affectionately known as the E. Coli Burger Stand. While waiting in line on Friday evening, the following bit of banter sticks out in memory:

Customer: Where do you get beer around here?
Burger Flipper: You're not allowed to drink here. This is a YMCA camp.
Me: But I thought YMCA meant You May Consume Alcohol (laughter from hungry patrons).
Burger Flipper (not laughing): No. It's Young Men's Camping Association.

[Actually Glenn, or the burger flipper, has it wrong. It's the Young Men's Christian Association, though the web pages of the national organization in the U.S.A. confine the full name to a single"History" page. Political correctness? -- Web editor.]

Once dark, the sky was pretty decent - limiting magnitude about 6.3. I ambled about, looking through a few scopes and giving sky tours to a couple of newbies. The lineups for the big scopes (up to 36 inches) was too long for my liking. The most interesting instrument I got to check out was a pair of the new Vixen 80mm binocular telescopes that are sold through Orion. With a focal length of 900mm, and only being able to accommodate 1¼ inch eyepieces, the field of view is rather small. But the image is very nice! They are stoutly built, with smooth interpupillary movement. User adjustable collimation wasn't apparent - I suspect one or more prism housing side plates would have to be removed. Too bad the 5-inch model wasn't on display. Both units seem to be a very good value.

I normally think of satellites as astrophoto-ruining space junk. On Saturday evening everyone out in the scope fields was treated to the spectacular sight of an iridium satellite flash. It appeared at the predicted time and location, and you could hear the yells from all over. As it was after twilight had ended, everyone was well dark adapted. At peak brightness it was at about -7 magnitude. That's like 10 Venuses crowded into one point!

I met David Chandler (of Deep Space program fame) and his wife Billie, an avid observing pair who live in a dark-sky spot in California. David convinced me to follow comet trails (not tails - trails) through his 13-inch dob. He got onto this observing project by reasoning that the dust emitted by comets, which over time becomes spread along the orbits and gives us meteor showers when we intersect certain orbits, ought to be detectable. His scope is outfitted with position encoders interfaced with a notebook computer running Deep Space. He displays the current positions of selected comet orbits as seen against the starry background, and zooms in somewhat to the part of the sky he wants to search in. The scope's aim point is mirrored on screen as a moving cursor. To ensure I knew what to look for, David centred on a trail and had me sweep across it to appreciate the width and dimness. Then he centred on another trail. Without looking at the display I followed along the trail for several degrees. The only way to do that was to zigzag across the trail due to its very low contrast. When I later checked the screen the cursor was still on the plotted line, and David said that every time I indicated I was crossing the trail so was the cursor. For some time after that we checked more trails. Most were quite tough to follow, but a couple were surprisingly easy. The visible width of most were 0.75 to 1 degree, and some were more sharply defined on one side. In many instances there were what appeared to be other trails crossing at varying angles. Indeed, a plot of many orbits confirmed this, with the majority lying more or less along the ecliptic band. This may be the major contribution toward the well-known zodiacal band, visible to the naked eye on good nights. Doug was inspired to see these trails for himself on Sunday evening. We're both pretty convinced of their reality and would like to image some, most likely with a CCD camera.

The event nowadays is less of a telescope maker's conference and more of a swap meet. There are the ubiquitous retailers, but some guys bring up truckloads of used and surplus gewgaws. I wished I could have brought a fat wad of disposable cash along! To further aid the spendthrifts, the swap tables are open all day Saturday and Sunday. Another draw is the door prize events. I say events because they each go on for about an hour on Saturday and Sunday evening around sunset. There are dozens of prizes, and the progression works from the least to most valuable. The grand prizes were a Meade 10" LX200 with CCD camera (Sat.) and a Celestar 8" (Sun.). Before the door prize draw on Sunday, awards were presented to telescope builders. Each recipient was shown on video recorded earlier describing their particular invention. As the main hall is too small for everyone, two crowds gather outside in front of and behind the building. Outside speakers and TV monitors allow the proceedings to be followed. These outside groups will repeatedly chant "Out front" or "Out back" if someone in their gang wins a prize, or "Stir the pot" if there are successive ticket numbers rather close in sequence. I had tickets for both days. I won nothing on Saturday. On Sunday Mercedes handed me a ticket each for herself and Doug, as they were going to town for dinner. Well into the draw one of their tickets got a Lumicon 1¼" filter changer. After collecting it I settled down, not expecting another hit. Well, about three prizes later a number was called a couple of times when Billie turned to me and said it must be mine (we got ours together). I frantically dug up the mess in my pockets during last call, and by the time I saw that it was indeed my number, a new one was called and some kid got my laser collimator!

Astronomical gatherings are always great fun, and this one is probably second only to Stellafane for renown. I met some interesting people, and got to observe something I probably never otherwise would have. If you've never visited such an event, give it a try this year. Starfest and Stellafane are just a few hours away by car.

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