The number one topic of conversation at the Oregon Star Party (OSP) this year was that there is no longer much doubt that wild fires are increasing in frequency and size, and that this has a major impact on amateur astronomy. Nor is there much doubt that this will continue to be more of a problem in the future – at least until all the vegetation on the west coast is lost to fire and there is nothing left to burn.
I was at OSP from Tuesday through Sunday and the air was hazy from smoke almost the entire time. The wind finally picked up late Saturday afternoon and gave us our first clear view of the sky that night. This was not thick smoke from nearby fires (we’ve had that at times in the past), but diffuse smoke from numerous fires all over the west coast. Mars is famous for its reddish color, and a lot of people are interested in seeing it now because it is very close to Earth and bright. But looking through the smoke, ALL the planets look red!
We used to worry that ever increasing light pollution would eventually kill amateur astronomy, and it is still a serious issue, but now it looks like air pollution from fires is the most immediate and serious threat. Of course, higher temperatures are part of the same global emergency that produces more wild fires. It was hot every day at OSP (sometimes over 100 degrees F) until Saturday. In fact, even the nights were so warm that on most nights my camera could not cool down to its normal operating temperature. And the smoke had a noticeable effect on people’s health as well as their ability to see the sky. There was a lot of sneezing, sore throats, and irritated eyes. I ran the air conditioner in my “mobile gallery” all afternoon for 3 days – something I had considered doing before, but it never got so bad that it was necessary until this year.
OSP is held in August because the nights are quite short in June and July, and the weather in Oregon starts to get less clear in September and October. But August is also when wild fires are usually at their worst. August of 2019 will have 2 New Moons – on the 1st and 30th, so the OSP organizers have elected to go with the earlier New Moon, which will hopefully reduce the chances of being “smoked out” again. In later years, serious consideration is being given to moving the star party to an earlier month. Essentially, this is saying that a short, clear night is better than a long smoky one.
Thankfully, Saturday night was great (although surprisingly cold after all the heat we had endured earlier in the week). Meteor activity from the Perseids was very good. We saw quite a few big, bright meteors, and I managed to capture a few. I’ll be posting a picture of that in a few days.