The moon and Venus put in an early appearance and Barb (Ellenvega) Hanning, at left, and Julie Gawarecki, are shown in silhouette at twilight.  CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
The moon and Venus put in an early appearance and Barb (Ellenvega) Hanning, at left, and Julie Gawarecki, are shown in silhouette at twilight. CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
"There goes one..." a man's voice called in the darkness. "It left a trail!"

A flashlight with a dim red beam clicked on for a moment. "It was a Perseid, a nice bright meteor."

"I have the Swan Nebula, do you want to look?" a different voice seemed to ask no one in particular.

Under pristine skies south of Spring Grove, the sixth annual StarBQ was hitting its stride.

"I like to listen to the chatter," said local resident Dean Johnson as he swung his 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain towards another object.

As event organizer, he knows the value of a truly dark sky. Light pollution often drives city-bound stargazers into the countryside, where the splendor of the night can be appreciated.

The StarBQ star party draws telescope owners, binocular users, and plenty of folks who just like to sit back and appreciate the heavens from Rochester, La Crosse, and all over the region. The two-night event was sponsored by the Rochester Astronomy Club on Aug. 10 and 11. It's traditionally free and open to all.

Johnson knows his way around the night sky better than most people know their own living room. A seasoned observer, his cap was adorned with a flurry of badges, each denoting the successful completion of an observer's course from the Astronomical League, a national group headquartered in Kansas City. His latest button is for a program called "Lunar II." Only 50 other individuals in the United States have it.

Nearby, Randy Hemann of Rochester was unloading the parts of his gargantuan telescope from its trailer. Called a Dobsonian, it's a common enough type of amateur instrument. The uncommon part was that this one sported an objective mirror 30 inches across.

"It's 3 years old today," he said. "I was thinking as I drove down from Rochester that it was exactly three years ago today when I got it."

Hemann is president of the Rochester Astronomy Club. He brought along a stepladder for looking through his scope, since the eyepiece is near the aperture, and the truss-tube is 12 feet long. "It has the light gathering power of 40,000 pupils (naked eye equivalent)."

A club member helped Hemann assemble the leviathan in pitch darkness, aided only by a couple of red LED lights. At a star party, nobody uses a bright white flashlight, since it would spoil night vision.

The event was timed to coincide with one of the best and most reliable meteor showers of the year. The name "meteor shower" may be a misnomer for those unacquainted with observing shooting stars, since most showers resemble a sprinkle at best. A day and a half before the peak of the shower, there was often a four or five minute gap between the trails of light. Some were bright, some dim. Some zipped across the sky in a blink, while others proceeded in a statelier manner.

But meteors only represented the icing on the cake. Both evenings began with some grilling (bring your own beverage and steak with a dish to pass). There was talk about telescopes, talk about things to view, talk about upcoming events in the night sky.

"We usually warm up by going after the obvious stuff," Johnson said. "Tonight there's a crescent moon that sets early on. Then we can view Venus in the west. Saturn is well placed early in the evening as well. After that, we'll go after some double stars..."

As full darkness descended, a whole universe of deep sky objects opened up. Johnson ticked off some likely candidates for viewing... globular clusters, open clusters, extended nebula, planetary nebula, galaxies. Later, the outer planets Neptune and Uranus would rise high enough to take a peek at.

Johnson pondered his options. "We may want to look at NGC 7789 in Cassiopeia. It looks like diamond dust... As the night wears on we start looking for more difficult objects to find."

A voice called out, "There's pass of the ISS (international space station) in just a couple minutes. It will appear in the west and head to the northeast."

"I've got it... OOOHH, there it is!"

When the 30-inch scope was ready, 9-year old "astro-boy" Joseph Gawarecki climbed the ladder for a look. He'd seen this telescope before. Son of Julie and Chris of Stewartville, he may be one of a handful of kids his age who has ever seen Pluto.

Julie pointed out, "He's been coming with us to star parties for three years. That particular night a couple summers ago, there was a certain pattern of stars that you could use to spot Pluto. Once you identified the pattern, there was this one small star that was kind of an extra, which didn't belong. It was Pluto. Sometimes you're just in the right place at the right time."

Credit for being able to find that elusive spot in the vastness of the sky has to go to Hemann.

"This is Hannah's first star party," Julie said about her 12-year-old niece, who accompanied them to the StarBQ.

Shaking hands with a planet in person is very different than seeing it in a book. "I love it," Hannah said of the event. "I had never seen the rings of Saturn. It was sooo cool!"

Chris added his own impressions of the night and said, "Half the fun is just coming out and watching the stars. I don't think that most people realize how much you can see after a half-hour of just sitting out. You can just watch the stars and say wow!"

Julie agreed and then added, "Sometimes when the dew settles in and you can't use the scopes and binoculars, we'll just sit back in chairs, and sometimes people will just lay on the ground and look up and talk about what's up there."

The awe and wonder of the universe touched young and old in much the same way.

Hemann trained the monster telescope on the Whirlpool galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula, the Ring Nebula. Then, finally, he made a search for Neptune and dialed up one of his high-power eyepieces. A fuzzy, blunt, bluish dot swam and swirled through the air as the big scope tested the limits of seeing conditions. A much tinier dot sat very near the orb, almost appearing as part of the distant gas giant.

"Triton!" Johnson exclaimed. "We've caught Neptune's largest moon!"

A line soon formed at the base of the stepladder as lifelong sky gazers trooped over, kids once again.