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Texas Star Party

Texas Star Party logo

Location - Five miles NW of Fort Davis, Texas
Time - April / May
Length - One week
Size - Up to 700 (officially)
Website - www.texasstarparty.org
My TSP images

As far as I'm concerned, this is the GrandDaddy of 'em all. Every star party has its charm and personality, but I find myself awaiting the TSP more than any other. Not to slight any other event, but I suppose it's (at least partly) due to the fact of TSP being so different from my everyday life. After all, west Texas is little like central Louisiana! I like the mountains, the dry climate and last but certainly not least, the dark skies.

For me, the TSP is an 850 mile drive each way, one that I gulped all in one shot for the first few years I attended. Either I got older, the road got harder or it got farther, because after about three years, I decided a two day drive was much more bearable. From my home in Pineville, Louisiana, the westward drive is old hat through Houston. On to San Antonio, it feels like I'm finally " going somewhere". The San Antonio hill country is a refreshing change from the flatlands where I live. Its green yet craggy terrain gives way to a broader and much more expansive landscape past Junction, Texas. White rock, scrub brush and mesas become commonplace. Spending the night in Sonora leaves only an easy 250 mile drive the following morning.

Located about five miles northwest of Fort Davis on Texas Highway 118, the TSP is held near McDonald Observatory, which makes for a very interesting afternoon's visit. In fact, the white domes of the observatory are visible from the star party site, in addition to many other locations in the Fort Davis area.

Once at the Prude Ranch all is right with the world. From a star party standpoint, there are two primary observing fields, "upper" and "lower". Although the upper field does indeed overlook the lower field, there's nothing "low"about any location af the roughly 5,000' elevation of the Prude Ranch. In years past when the crowds have been extremely large, scopes would also be spread out across the entire grounds of the Ranch. In the last few years, they've been more concentrated on the upper and lower fields, as well as around the RV area near the highway.

The facilities at the Prude Ranch are of course rustic, but they're more than adequate even at a minimum. I've never opted for the more expensive " hotel" rooms, staying instead in a bunkhouse each year I've attended. Plus, the hotel rooms go pretty quickly. The dining hall is a large, comfortable area flanked on each end by the registration desk and the meeting hall. Just the same, during mealtimes it can become very crowded - A perfect place to meet and make new friends!

Night comes late at the TSP. In fact, it's often nearly 10pm before it's fully dark. Part of the "lateness" is an illusion, since the Fort Davis area is in the extreme western end of the Central Time zone. As a result, you get the "lost time" back in the morning, if you can last all night. When darkness does fall, so does the temperature. Being a semiarid climate, there's rarely any significant humidity to hold daytime warmth. In fact, when the Sun dips below the crest of the western hill overlooking the upper field, the change in temperature is usually prompt and noticable. This often comes as a surprise to those of us accustomed to the sauna of the deep south US, where summer nighttime lows are often only 10 to 20 degrees below daytime temperatures. At the TSP, the arid mountain air typically swings from the lower 90s during the day, to the mid and lower 30s during the night.

Speaking of nights ... WOW! It's a standing joke that newbies at the TSP are often fooled into thinking storm clouds (or dawn!) are coming over the mountains to the east during the night, when in fact, it's really just Sagittarius and the Milky Way rising. Trouble is, the joke's been on me as well! I vividly remember one night in 2004 (I think it was) when at about 4am just about everyone stopped looking into their eyepieces and just gawked at the noticeably pink Milky Way suspended overhead. This was no smudge of light, no smear across the sky - It was a very distinctly recognizable, very three-dimensional edge-on view of a galaxy... OUR galaxy! There may be places on Earth that match the west Texas sky, but from what I've read and seen, you'll not surpass it.

In all fairness, the site has garnered some criticism in the past for less than perfect seeing. Well, it's in a valley of sorts, between two ridges so it's natural that as the nighttime air cools, it will drop into the valley causing at least some turbulence. Personally, it's not bothered me. I guess I'm so caught by the transparency that a little softness of seeing doesn't bother me greatly. Besides, I'm there to see faint fuzzies. I can see planets anywhere.

Vendor support at the TSP is strong, with the "vendor shack" a favorite hangout whenever it's open. It's not uncommon to find yourself liberating some "no-good-once-I-get-back-home" star party cash one more than one occasion...

The afternoon and evening programs held in the meeting hall are always popular. One of the hallmarks of the TSP has always been the stellar quality of the guest speakers that attend each year. A look at the list of speakers over the years on the TSP website reads like a Who's Who in astronomy. In addition, there are always numerous presentations on ATM, observing and a wide variety of other topics.

I would be remiss if I didn't give credit to the hard-working TSP staff and volunteers. An event the size of the TSP takes an incredible amount of work before, during and after, and the smooth execution we've come to expect every year is due in large part to the efforts these people contribute. Snack bars, vendor support, wireless Internet and more - It doesn't "just happen". Thanks, guys!