You will find some of the darkest skies in the contiguous United States - over 5,000ft up in the ‘sky island' Davis Mountains of West Texas.
Remote, desolate plains are framed by towering pale blue skies, only segregated by the occasional ranch boundary fence, semi arid rock beds, lonely cactus and creaky sounding Aermotor Windmills - all reinforcing the feeling that little has changed in the bleached landscape since the Lone Star State was admitted into the Union in 1845. With national land disputes mostly settled by then, many isolated military outposts were abandoned and a fledgling USA started to develop its imperial expansion.
The subsequent oil fever that spread through Texas after Antun Lucas struck gold at Spindletop, led to huge profiteering via 20th century pumpjacks and modern day hydraulic fracturing facilities - along with the infrastructure required to deliver the abundant black gold's many uses. However, this man-made bonanza is noticeably absent on the sky island - along with no meaningful population centres too. And with the Yates Oil Field hosting the only major man-made structure in West Texas, located over 150 miles east, there is near-zero light pollution - providing particularly inky black night skies.
A perfect location for studying the cosmos, and an ideal spot to stage the annual Texas Star Party.
Started by Deborah Byrd (who later co-produced the legendary Earth & Sky radio series in 1991 and is editor-in-chief of EarthSky), the Texas Star Party is one of the world's oldest and best established star parties. Wanting to develop a stronger astronomer community in Texas, Byrd, along with 50+ star gazing enthusiasts gathered at the McDonald Observatory for a weekend's observing in 1979.
The resulting camaraderie formed a bond that encouraged fellow Texas Star Party founders David Clark, George Ellis and Don Garland to create an annual weekly residence at Prude Ranch in 1982.
During the intervening years, the Texas Star Party has become one of the largest meetings of amateur astronomers in North America, and is now the world’s most respected gathering of like minded visual observers and image makers - all dedicated in pursuing a deeper understanding of the universe and the complex questions that arise from their findings.
I arrived at the Texas Star Party in the dead of night, after navigating road closures and long detours associated with a large wild fire doing its seasonal best to disrupt life in the Davis Mountains. Keen to witness the arrival of TSP signatories, I entered Prude Ranch a day early, and with finishing touches still being made to the site, coupled with an overcast night, I was truly disoriented - such was the darkness.
Outside exceptionally remote regions of the world, that nightly absence of light is uncommon, so one has to recalibrate night vision and retune perception of distance. Respectful of TSP’s strict no-light-at-night policy (a red filter’s importance cannot be overstated) I stumbled to a clearing and pitched my tent.
“A still more glorious dawn awaits, not of sunrise, but a galaxy rise. A morning filled with 400 hundred billion suns, the rising of the Milky Way. An enormous spiral form with collapsing gas clouds, condensing planetary systems, luminous super giants, stable middle aged stars, red giants, white dwarfs, planetary nebulas, supernovas, neutron stars, pulsars, black holes. And, there is every reason to think, other exotic objects that we’ve not yet discovered.”
Galaxy Rise by Carl Sagan.
A few years ago, I first entered the intriguing world of astronomy when I made a story about the community that works and lives around the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Aside from being in awe of the gargantuan engineering feat that is the GBT, with mind boggling statistics that include the world’s largest movable land object, I was captivated by the list of environment-specific rules enforced to allow astronomers to perform sound and accurate science.
For example, only diesel engined vehicles are allowed on site due to their absence of spark plugs, as Radio Frequency Interference is created during the microseconds of time that the spark is occurring at the spark plug gap, where high frequency bursts of energy are created. These bursts of energy cause static and interference in radios, televisions, telephones and other sensitive electronic devices - in particular the GBT.
Adherence to exact rules are followed diligently at TSP too, though not to combat RFi but to rein in stray light. A refined and well practiced ‘blackout’ environment after sundown is highly valued within the boundary of Prude Ranch, with a collective obsession to provide a unique opportunity for participants to be fully ‘dark-adapted’ and remain so while observing under the dark skies, with only the rare occurrence of rain lifting that light pollution curfew. A representative example of those light pollution rules can be found within TSP’s ‘Computer & Display Rules’ - ‘display screens must be used at very low intensity (0.10 lux when measured 22″ from centre of screen displaying black star map)’.
Site orientation was straightforward with TSP being split across 3 areas: Lower, Middle and Upper Fields - all kitted out with adequate power lines for each mini-site’s energy needs. With an ample area for participants’ telescope equipment, storage and daytime relaxation, life at TSP quickly gels with old friendships recounting previous years’ observing achievements and embracing new folk into the star gazing fold.
With attendance limited to just 300 people, advance registration is key. Most attendees arrive from across the USA, though a few travel from afar, including the UK (like myself) along with a minivan of larger than life Australians sporting a huge bright yellow inflatable kangaroo that they dragged through all connecting flights from Sydney to El Paso.
Groups form and long term TSP regulars congregate together in symbolic spots, like the Shade Tree Gang hanging out on Middle Field. Scratch the surface a little more and the uninitiated begins to sense rivalries and seemingly fierce competition not only between attendees, but also fields. Further scrutiny reveals an additional, and probably the most relevant demarcation of TSP members - and that’s whether one is an Observer or Imager.
Walking around at night, one discovers that studying the cosmos is largely split between two serious communities: Visual Astronomers (observers) who look through an eyepiece attached to a telescope to view distant objects and Astrophotographers (imagers) who use a camera attached to a telescope or lens to photograph objects in outer space.
Throughout the first 24hrs of TSP, a bewildering array of equipment and technology is unpacked from U-Haul trailers, RVs and huge Fifth Wheelers. Time is taken to securely anchor the extensive range of precision apparatus and paraphernalia into the bone dry dirt, as extremely strong, unpredictable and disruptive dust devils rip through the ranch multiple times during the 7 day event.
As this gadgetry is assembled, clear visual distinctions appear that illustrate whether you are entering an observer or imager’s domain - with observers standing proudly aside their imposing Dobsonian type contraptions, whilst imagers are ‘out of sight’, hunched over a red filtered computer screens hiding inside gazebos and under tarp wraps.
A smaller, more secretive splinter group of astronomers embark on excelling in both disciplines (as one member stated “we work both sides of the streets and hated by both”) - all leading to a very intense week of data gathering and investigation.
During the course of TSP, many seminars, lectures, astronomy programs and discussions take place that refine observing skills and promote a deeper understanding of the cosmo. Guest speakers inspire their audience and experienced peers allow new entrants the time to build confidence. As a new entrant myself, I conducted my first observation of Jupiter - viewed through a substantially sized Dobsonian telescope. The view was beguiling and so clear.
I also pointed my camera into the night sky for the first time and took a few frames (featured here in this gallery). I was also blown away by the simple resolving power of a good quality pair of binoculars, which better separate nearby star clusters and open up interstellar imagination.
As each day’s searing heat dissipated, another form of energy lit up sundown - the energy of excitement beaming from all TSP attendees, whilst they donned warmer clothing and got comfortable for a night’s observation. Moonrise, followed by Galaxy Rise - the arrival overhead of the Milky Way (described as the “great windscreen wiper in the sky”) at around 03.00am - all opened my eyes to readily absorb the luminous canvas of time presented in extraordinary detail against the dark West Texan hemisphere.
It is not often an event has a main-belt asteroid ‘4932 Texstapa’ named after it, but the Texas Star Party is full of surprises for the inquisitive mind, with attendees excelling in extensive Lunar, Planetary, Deep Sky, Solar, Deep Space and Milky Way studies. TSP is well organised, respectful and superbly resourced - I felt privileged to be in their company for a brief moment in time.
Addendum: 'Amateur astronomers are the ‘canary in the mine’ for light pollution’.
Visiting the Davis Mountains reminded me about the importance of natural darkness at night. Over the course of 3.5 billion years, from the earliest existence of single-celled organisms, life on Earth has relied on the uninterrupted transition from day into night - a cycle baked into the DNA of all life’s evolution. With the advent of the industrial revolution and its rapid development enabled by the discovery of oil, mankind has ruptured that life enriching accord. There is now a vast wealth of evidence resulting from decades of intricate research, that light pollution is greatly effecting wildlife’s welfare and human health (both physical and mental) and with the majority of the world’s population now living and working in highly urbanised environments, humans are increasingly unaware of the long term damaging effect of light pollution.
Texas Star Party chose the Davis Mountains as their base 40 years ago specifically for its silky dark night sky, however with continued expansion of commercial facilities to provide power to metropolitan areas, I wonder how long it can continue to observe under such unpolluted skies?
After a few nights observing, I heard low level concern about a small source of light that was seeping into the more advanced astronomers’ view. Initial puzzlement led to local enquiry with feedback fearing the worst - an oil fracking prospecting company was setting up testing areas and though many miles distant, their light emission was enough to contaminate the more precise observations.
So maybe the carbon economy unleashed at Spindletop in East Texas may, a century later, spoil one of West Texas’s finest and most valuable parties.