Justesen Ranch Star Party

By: Vlad Fedosov

So after a long covid lockdown the restrictions were finally relaxed enough for star parties to resume in 2022! After years of not attending any real star parties, I was eager to get out under a dark sky with some of my like-minded astro folks! To add to the excitement our astronomy club(Rose City Astronomers) had a brand new Bortle 1 dark sky site for us to try out in central Oregon; Justesen Ranch. What can I say I could not wait to get out there as this was also the first time I was going to have my new big gun the 24″ f/3.1 Spicaeyes dob out!!!

Going out to a star party that is multiple nights does take some prep work especially if you’re bringing larger and more complex gear(If you’re not sure how to get ready for a star party check out my YouTube video on the subject: https://youtu.be/S_XRfrgVHOI). Having the prep out of the way and having the 24″ f/3.1 Spicaeyes loaded up in the trailer I was off on the 3hr, 187mile trip out to central Oregon! I always like going out to this area of the state as you drive through the scenic Columbia River Gorge as well as the drastic change of the evergreens turning into a desert!

After a relatively long drive, I was excited to see what this new location had to offer. Pullin in at around 4 pm I was greeted by familiar club members and our VP of observing. Staking out a spot that had a great/clear view of the south I began to settle in. The weather on arrival was very pleasant with little wind and light high altitude clouds. A couple of hours later and well before darkness, I had most of the kit set up and ready to go for the night!

With some time left before darkness, I had a chance to walk around and talk to some of the other folks there. There was a decent amount of imagers present, but visual folks were certainly more numerous. My type of crowd! The other thing that I did have time to check out was the pond that was right by the observing field. It was a nice time to go bring my chair there and cool down by the water!

With night setting in I returned to the kit and started to get my observing lists out. You might have caught that earlier I said that I set up with a clear sky to the south, this was strategic as I always seem to observe from locations that do not have a good view of the south or have light pollution in that direction. At this site, the horizon to the south is almost totally unobscured!

As darkness was setting in I was glad to see that much of the high clouds seemed to clear up. The wind was also light. I proceeded to start observing some deep sky objects(DSO) in the Sagittarius. Much of the objects that I kicked off the star party with observing down south with the 24″ f/3.1 were eye candy objects such as the Swan Nebula(m17), Trifid Nebula(m20), and the Lagoon Nebula(m8). Without going into detail on each object I can say that the views were the absolute best that I have seen in my life! I guess there should be no surprise there as the 24″ is by far the largest and most premium instrument that I have had the privilege of owning(previously it was an 18″ f/4.5). Pretty amazing views, and later I will expand on some of the details of what I saw compared to previous scopes.

Having such a large instrument out at a star party is a bit like taking out a black hole and kind of makes you “that guy”(at this star party the 24” was the largest scope present). Over the last 20 or so years of my astro journey I always envied “that guy”, so now it’s quite weird to be him… I had quite a few people stop by to take a look through the scope. It was convenient and a pleasure to share the views since my SpicaEyes had goto and tracking!

After spending some time on the brighter deep sky objects down south I decided to point the 24″ at a very familiar object m57. It was around this time that our club’s VP of observing, Matt swung by to check out the 24″. We took a look at m57 and a few other brighter DSO in the region we decided to give the 24″ a little more of a workout by focusing back in on m57. The first challenge was to see if we could see the central star in the nebula. I knew it was very possible as I have seen it down to even my 12″ LX-200 ACF. It does require excellent seeing and high power). The central star was pretty evident to me. Matt had a bit of a tougher time spotting it but with a bit of looking could see it. We then decided to see if we could spot the nearby galaxy IC 1296. Well, this one was no challenge at all as it was fairly bright at magnitude 15.4. We could even tell the general elliptical shape of the galaxy! Matt next pointed out that there was a 3rd more difficult galaxy right nearby. I honestly did not even know about this one. This was PGC 2024204 at a magnitude of a mear 17.53! Pointing the scope to the area of the sky where this dim guy was I could not see it…! After studying the star map of exactly where it should be in relation to the stars around it I started to use all the tricks in the book to try and pull it out. I blocked all stray light from my observing eye, bumped the scope a bit to introduce a bit of motion, and made sure I was getting plenty of breath. All my efforts paid off! It was not long until I saw the dimmest of smudges of light right where the galaxy should be! What a thrill landing an object that just minute ago I did not even know existed! Matt went on a similar hunt and after some effort, I think he was about 90% sure he saw it.
I concluded the first night by observing quite a few objects that I was already familiar with in the Cygnus region to get more of a feel for what the 24″ could show. This area was also a great place to employ my 4″ APO for some wide-field views of the North American Nebula and the Vail Nebula. I turned in for the night by sleeping under the stars on an inflatable mattress I had in my trailer(this was my first time doing this and it was a really cool experience)!

Waking up the second day I processed to make some quick breakfast and head out to do some exploring the surrounding things to see. The nice thing about the NW is that there is no shortage of nature type of things to see and do. I ended up heading to the nearby Celestial Falls. I’ll let the pictures d the talking here, but it was a great time!

Coming back to Justesen Ranch, I was unfortunately greeted with a partly cloudy sky and fairly windy conditions:( The wind in and of itself was not too huge of an issue where it was not for the observing field being so dusty. The dust was really blowing and getting over all of the equipment. I had my Baader Herchel wedge set up in the 4″ APO pointed at the sun. I always find observing the sun a good way to pass the time waiting for night to come. It is also a pretty good draw to have other folks come by to take a look. After also doing some reading and listening to music it was finally time for nightfall of the second night!

The second night unfortunately had the worst conditions. It was fairly hazy with bad transparency and the wind never died down:( I stayed up until only about 12am doing some looking at objects at zenith(where the haze did not affect the view as much). Then I called it a night.

The morning of the 3rd day brought a nice time to mingle with people and it was not as windy. By noon I had heard from several club members that the wind was supposed to pick up by 2pm so I secured all the gear and headed out for lunch in the rear by town of Maupin, OR. It was good to finally get a good meal and a brew in the system!

Coming back to Justesen Ranch the wind sure was blowing! The sky was partly cloudy, and several people had left. I actually considered of packing up and leaving myself. After some consideration, I decided to stick it out hoping for better conditions. I did take a hike around the pond, and that was a good time. I also found out from Matt that why the field was likely so dusty… The previous weekend there was a burning man concert with over 1000 people! I’m sure that this did not help with the condition of the field!

Nighttime came and conditions actually did settle down a bit. The wind was bearable and the transparency was probably a 6.5 out of 10 so that it was acceptable but not great. I observed some tougher objects on this night when transparency got better and easier ones near zenith when transparency was worst. At this point let me kind of expand on saying what I felt made the view better then compared say to even my previous 18″ scope. While bright DSO look great(from a dark sky site) even in a 5″ APO, you are limited to a low power(witch actually can work better for some objects). With the 24″ you are able to really amp up the power and still keep a bright view. With having a larger view that it equality bright detail is much easier to perceive. The other thing that is somewhat surprising is how much more 3d the view looks! Its a bit hard to explain but the view of DSO’s magnified to something like 300x does really make them look completely like a different object. The perception that you get is that you are not looking at it, but as if you are other in space right by it!

I stayed up until about 2am observing on the final night and was happy that I did stay for the night. The next morning I packed up and was on the way home! Getting back home to the family was nice, and spending about 6 hours cleaning all the dust off all my gear was also an “amazing” time;)