Go South
Submitted: Friday, 25th January 2008 by Lance Humphreys

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The Scene

Bolivia, August 2005

In August 2005 I attended the tenth annual Southern Skies Star Party held in Bolivia.  I arrived there on August 1st with 11 other hard core observers. They included Gary Myers owner of Stellar Cat, the drive system found on Obsession Telescopes, Dennis Young an amazing astro photographer, observer and astro tour guide out of Sedona Arizona, George Freidman who  brought an epic "hit List"  he acquired with the help of Mega Star, a computer star atlas, Fred Espenak aka Mr. Eclipse, and others who all shared our love for the southern skies.



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The Scene

From La Paz airport to the dark skies takes less than 2 hours. On the drive out I could tell this was a very magical place. As you drive west on the two lane highway you see to the north is a beautiful glacier mountain range with peaks up to 20,000 feet high. These Andean high plains are dotted with small picturesque villages and farms.



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22" starmaster

A 22" Starmaster sits on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia at the 12,500 foot elevation under very dark, very dry skies. The scope has Argo-Navis & Stellar Cat to handle the GOTO. As a present owner of a 28" Starmaster with Sky Commander and GOTO. I can tell you the scope was GREAT! Gary owns a 30", Dennis owns a 28" and along with myself, we all agreed that this scope under these skies performed as well as our 28-30s under 6.5 magnitude skies!



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Milkyway right to the horizon

The first thing that strikes you is the awesome brightness of the Milky Way contrasted by the inky black dark lanes within it! We could see Sagittarius and Scorpius at the zenith. The large Sagittarius cloud being the brightest of all the Milky Way clouds for sure. Then south into Norma's very bright medium size star cloud with the bright open cluster NGC 6067 embedded inside. This is one of the finest open star clusters that I observed.

Further south were the very bright stars Alpha & Beta Centaurus. The dark cloud of the Coal Sack is flanked by the Southern Cross with the beautiful Jewel Box Cluster off the easternmost star Beta Crux. Further down into the Milky Way is the amazing Eta Carinae Nebula Complex! This large extended nebula is a rich mix of bright and dark nebulas and open clusters. The keyhole nebula near its center sits on a bright section in a rich star field. South of Eta Carinae on the edge of the Milky Way rest the Southern Pleiades, IC 2602 a bright open cluster with half a dozen naked eye stars seen at only 20 or so degrees above the flat SSW horizon of Lake Titicaca. Also of note outside the Milky Way you will find two Great globular clusters NGC 6397 of Ara and NGC 6752 of Pavo. Both of these 5th magnitude clusters would easily been Messier objects in the Northern Hemisphere.


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Another thing that I was struck by at this location only 16 degrees south of the equator is the great view of the northern skies. You can still get the great galaxies in Andromeda M31 and Triangulum, M33 at a very nice height over the northern horizion. Even the Perseus Double Cluster made it into the southern sky.

This has got to be the best of both worlds!


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Lance and the 22" starmaster

I came down here to WORK! I spent every night with the 22" until I dropped, which was dawn or moonrise. The SSSP was over too quickly and everyone left after six days back to the States. So then it was me and the 22" inside a rustic adobe structure with, get this, a grass and reed roll off roof on Lake Titicaca's edge.

In the stillness of the night you could hear the waves gently lapping the shore.


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This was the beginning of the 2nd week of August with the Perseids becoming more and more frequent. Every night at sunset I would give Sky Tours to the many visitors who would stop by for a look. They were from all over the world. Japan, Germany, England, France, Canada, the US, and who knows where else.

With the help of translators I pointed out Venus, Jupiter, close together in the western evening sky. The bright constellations and of course gave them all tours of the bright deep sky objects with the 22" Starmaster.


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47 Tucanae

The most awesome object we saw, after the sheer magnificent brilliance of the Milky Way was the naked eye globular star cluster 47 Tucane!  I had the privilege to see the Omega Centauri globular cluster under great skies too, and yes, it is larger. BUT if Omega is The King, then 47 Tucane is The Queen! She has the curves! Her central concentration and beautiful star chains were amazing! The resolution at the core was awesome! It was a perfect amount of lumpy concentration that sucked you into her depths without becoming too crowded so that you could make out tiny paths to her large blue halo.

One Night Dennis Young had us do a comparison of M13 and 47 Tucane. Both globulars were up at about the same height off the horizon. 47 Tucane in the south and M13 in the North. After we all took turns looking at each of them we cried: "THERE IS NO COMPARISON!!!"


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Small Magellenic Cloud

47 Tucane is in a league of her own. Sitting naked eye as the fuzzy "companion star" to the Small Magellanic Cloud. So after the Milky Way set with Scorpius and Sagittarius setting upside down! Now that's a weird sight. The SMC rose to put on a show!

When scanning this cloud with binoculars you notice two bright nebulous objects even at seven power. They sit in the eastern section, where it thins and tapers down. These are from east to west open cluster NGC 371 and the bright nebula NGC 346. Also in the SMC in binoculars just a little west of NGC 346 is the very small and compressed bright open cluster NGC 330. Under power with the 22" it looks like a tiny bright globular with a halo but only a hint of resolution.


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Large Magellanic Cloud

I would spend the wee wee hours until dawn with a photo copy of the 2nd edition of Urano Metria bagging every open cluster, bright nebula and globular cluster plotted! By the way this 2nd edition has a great enlarged SMC chart in the back of the Atlas (LMC too) that helped relieve the over crowded labeling. So as I cluster hopped through the SMC with Urano I would shade in the objects on the atlas and write down my observations of each and every object.

By the way, the SMC as plotted on Urano contains 33 OC's, 10 bright neb's and the in line of sight GC's NGC 362 and of course 47 Tucane. Also as a side note just North of 47 Tucane is a small bright globular cluster (listed as an OC on Urano but is for sure a GC. See "Sky Catalogue 2000.0") This tiny bright globular goes by NGC 121 and again is only half a degree north of the awesome globular cluster 47 Tucane. And just like the small galaxy NGC 6207 near M13, just south of 47 Tucane, again by only half a degree is the 10th or 11th magnitude galaxy ESO 28-12. It is small, with a gradually brighter middle and a hint of a nucleus. What a great view!


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Large Magellanic Cloud

OK, now the Large Magellanic Cloud is following the Small Magellanic Cloud and ready to trump it! Yes, I know, what can I say! At first I casually sweep through with binoculars then with the 22". I am floored by the sheer number of objects that I pick up field after field! I count well over 20 bright nebula fields and dozens and dozens of small bright open and globular clusters! Now this is crazy! I go to the Urano Metria and count the following number of objects plotted on the charts just for the LMC:

  • 225  Open Clusters
  • 93  Bright Nebulas
  • 6 Globular Clusters (plus add another 6 globs that are listed as globulars on Argo-Navis and/or Sky Cata. 2000.0)
  • Along with 13 distant field galaxies I am going to be busy!

Remember, these numbers are just for the LMC alone!

So after 18 long mornings and 50 hours on the cloud I can tell you, I nailed every object plotted on the Urano charts, except for 8 of the 13 field galaxies plotted. But I did make up for it by finding some more open clusters that were not plotted. The Sky, The Scope and my relentless observations all came together in a dance with The Infinite on those nights.


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LMC and the Tarantula Nebula

The most awesome object, hands down in the LMC is NGC 2070. The Tarantula Nebula. I cannot find words to convey to you the extremely fine detail of this extended nebulas object. It has loop after loop of bright and dark nebulas! A bright star near its center, 30 Doradus with a tiny tiny star cluster behind it. The sight is one you must see for yourself to believe! After seeing the Great Orion Nebula, by the way, up high in the morning sky at the same time as the Tarantula. And Eta Carina Nebula Complex in the evening sky, I will tell you this: M42 The Great Nebula in Orion is the brightest nebula in the sky. Eta Carina is the largest of these three bright nebulas with many bright and dark details and wins for the best "extended bright nebula." But, The Tarantula wins, hands down as "the most complex bright nebula in the whole sky." Again the Tarantula Nebula is truly amazing to say the least!

The following is an excerpt from "The Stars and Planets" by Ian Ridpath regarding The Great Tarantula Nebula: "The Tarantula is larger and brighter than any nebula in the Milky Way. If it were as close to us as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula would fill the entire constellation of Orion and cast shadows on Earth!"


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Meteors through the SMC and LMC

Well now, the Perseids Meteor Shower is rocking! 50 degree long silvery streaks are blazing out of the north. They are leaving long smoky white trails hour after hour!

On one night even before the peak, during SSSP Dennis Young, myself and others saw a BRIGHT GREEN FIRE BALL go south in between the SMC and LMC. It breaks into TWO GREEN BLAZES OF LIGHT. This meteor was by far a great highlight of our observations and in our utter joy and dismay, we all screamed at this sight in total astro delight!


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Group shot with David Levy

Well now I've been getting ready for the second Star Party. Oh, I forgot to tell you, another group of just five more hard core observers are on their way down to Bolivia. It is headed by Comet Guru, SL9 co-discoverer, the one and only........ David Levy!

David has a shirt on that reads; "My Damm Comet Crashed!" of course referring to the Shoemaker-Levy9 comet that hit Jupiter in July of 1994. So I'm going through my notes and making a list of all the goodies in the best fields I can think of that I've seen in the last 27 days to show them!


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The group at dinner time

Its August 28th, I am star blinded. I crawl out of bed and look out my 2nd floor window across the lake to an island to check the visibility. It's another dry clear day, going to be another all nighter! I stumble down the stairs and into the lobby. I see suit cases, one has a bright colored tag: "David Levy". I bound into the restaurant and rub my eyes as a group of jet lagged astro-heads turns and greets me. We introduce ourselves and I give them a rundown of what the nights have been like and how the sky has been.

The next and last week of my stay there is a dusk to dawn SUPER HARD CORE OBSERVING RUN, as if it could be bumped up to another level? Well, we did it like Aces.


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David and his scope

David Levy sweeps the sky looking for comets every single night, all night long! He is the first one out in the evening and the last one to put his scope away at dawn. In short breaks or at the scope he  would tell us the best stories of Gene Shoemaker, Barnard, Hubble and others that kept you drooling for more. David is taller than I thought he would be. 6 foot 3 or more, thin, lanky, soft spoken, very kind, with a heart of pure gold and the most intelligent person I have ever met. 

A funny thing at one of our first meetings together someone mentioned the Coldwell list. And I jump in and say "OH I hate these guys who take objects from other list and put THEIR NUMBER'S to them!" Not knowing that David has a list he is compiling in a book to come out this November! After a few more CHOICE COMMENTS, David says: "I wish you would have told me this before I sent MY LIST to the publishers!"


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Omega Centauri

Needless to say the group had a great laugh! David and  I became good friends despite our different views on the subject.

The next morning I come down after yet another all nighter to the dinner table to offer my idea of a GLOBULAR CLUSTER MARATHON! Its August, we are -16 degrees south, the Milky Way is high on the meridian it is Purrrrrrrrfect timing for it. David says "Great idea, I've never heard of anyone doing this before!" So the marathon is set for the next night.


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Globular Hunters

The 22" Starmaster, my 2 new found friends, Bernard Arghiere and Simon Chung take up the Marathon with the help of the Sky Catalogue 2000.0 globular cluster list and Argo-Navis powered by the Stellar Cat GOTO. By the end of the night at 4:30 am we have carefully observed 100 globular clusters and made careful notes on each of them with the 22".

IC 4499 the southern most globular cluster was seen with David Levy's 6 incher from the observing patio below the 22" observatory due to the high south wall making a total of 101 globular clusters seen by the group in a dusk to dawn globular cluster marathon!


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Dawn over the lake

WOW! what a long and strange trip it has been! All in all I have spent 34 days here in Bolivia. First the Southern Skies Star Party. Then a 3 week solo mission. Then the best of all: The David Levy Comet Workshop where in our little slice of spare time David gave three workshops covering his and others comet hunting history, how to find them both with telescopes and CCD, and even a "Lets Talk Stars" internet radio show that we all did together telling our stories of the great nights in Bolivia on the shores of Lake Titicaca at the 12,500 foot elevation, under what Dave says are the best skies on the Planet.

None of us who have been under these skies could disagree, they are AWESOME to say the least!


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The author

So in closing The 22" Starmaster with Argo-Navis and I saw in 27 clear moon less nights, in 168 blissful hours SIX HUNDRED AND TEN southern deep sky objects! This is how it breaks down:

  • 257  Open Clusters in both the SMC & LMC
  • 93  Bright Nebulas, some in the above OC's some not, but all SMC & LMC objects
  • 37   Globular Clusters (counting Milky Way and SMC & LMC objects)
  • 38   Milky Way Open Clusters south of Scorpius - Carina
  • 19   Planetary Nebulas
  • 17   Bright Milky Way Nebulas south of Scorpius - Carina
  • 149  Galaxies including members in 5 different Abell Galaxy Clusters

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ANZA Observatory back home

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ANZA Observatory back home

Now back home in Southern California at 4,200 foot elevation, under 6.5 magnitude stars at the Zenith, I open my observatory point the 28" out and keep asking myself: "When is it going to get dark?"

I can honestly tell you my skies are now:


            Go South!

 Article by Lance Humphreys (abellhunter). Discuss this article on the IceInSpace Forum.

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