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Southern Milky Way

1996 Southern Skies Star Party

by Ken Willcox, Astronomical League

The first Southern Skies Star Party (SSSP) was hailed a great success by all nineteen participants. The event was held at the Inca Utama Hotel which stands on the shore of Lake Titicaca 78 miles northeast of La Paz, Bolivia. This site was selected on the high altiplano of Bolivia following the Astronomical League's eclipse tour in 1994. Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, is located 12,500 ft above sea level and offers a very stable and transparent atmosphere through which to observe the southern stars. This years SSSP enjoyed exceptionally clear skies all six nights and three of the original participants have already put down a deposit for next years SSSP scheduled for June 28 - July 5, 1997.

Participants ranging in age from 12 to 67 years used a variety of binoculars and telescopes to view the southern heavens. Among the telescopes present were an AstroScan 2001, 3.5 Questar, C-8, Meade 10" LX200 and a 6" Astrophysics refractor, to name just a few. The success of the '96 SSSP was highlighted by several participants who earned their Southern Skies Binocular Certificates during the week, as well as the spectacular astrophotographs made possible by Lake Titicaca's exceptionally transparent skies.

The weather was perfect and although temperatures dipped to just below freezing every night, the low humidity and very light winds provided comfortable viewing. Dewing occurred on only one morning when the light winds ceased but was not considered a major problem for most observers. Crillon Tours, S.A. provided the accommodations, ground transportation and side tours to view one of the most beautiful countries in South America. Our viewing site on Lake Titicaca was just below the snow capped Royal Andes Mountains which served a spectacular backdrop. In addition to the crystal clear skies for stargazing, Bolivia also provided ample daytime activities including hydrofoil trips, picturesque villages, and archeological sites to explore the ancient Armarian civilization.

The 10 inch, f/5.6 Starmaster Dobsonian, which was donated by the Astronomical League in 1994, was enjoyed by all participants and, following its annual cleaning, provided spectacular views of Omega Centarii, Eta Carinae, the colorful stars of the Jewel Box and comets Hale-Bopp and Koppf. At one point, some thought that Hale-Bopp might be developing an anti-tale, but others felt it was only the star studded Milky Way that Hale-Bopp was occupying at the time. Many participants commented of the brightness of the Milky Way and its beautiful reflection in Lake Titicaca.

The rarified atmosphere in La Paz contributed to hypoxia for a few of the participants which apparently has nothing to do with age or one's physical shape. Fortunately, the altitude sickness was treated by one of the doctors of Crillon tours and all finished the week in good shape with fond memories of Bolivia. Three of the nineteen participants went on to visit Machu Piccu in Peru before returning home.

The staff at Inca Utama were extremely helpful and provided hot coffee and chocolate every night to help take off the chill. Bolivia not only offered exceptionally clear skies, it also provided an opportunity to get acquainted with a culture that pre-dates the Inca civilization. Bob Seibel, one of our participants even bought a hand-made 15 foot reed boat to take back to Boston with him.

Much was learned during this first SSSP. Without a pole star to guide you, most participants found that the drift technique was the most reliable method for polar alignment. Astrophotographers noted that the southern Milky Way was so bright that 30 minute exposures at f/2.8 on EI 800 film were actually overexposed by one stop! Also, fork mounts are not as useful as German equatorial mounts because most of the objects of interest (Eta Carinae, Magellanic clouds, Omega Centarii, etc.) are near the south celestial pole. It is hoped that the success of this years SSSP will stimulate manufacturers to take a second look at their mounts and engineer a system that is more versatile for 16 degees south latitude.

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Last revised: 2008 Feb 10