We just finished our first night of viewing at Star Hill. Phil, the owner of Star Hill spent the night with us on the observation deck. We had the Meade LX200GPS 12" for the evening.
Star Hill is located north of Las Vegas, NM. To say it is off the beaten path is an understatement. You spend the final 2.8 miles getting to Star Hill on a dirt road that is extremely rutted and in our case very muddy from recent snow. They had 3 feet of snow two weeks ago and while almost all of it melted there is a lot of standing water. If not for the all-wheel drive in the Audi there is no way we would have made it. As it was we came extremely close to getting stuck. All four wheels spinning, mud flying onto the hood at one point -- not the type of driving you do on a regular basis.
We met Phil at the observation deck at 7:30 PM. I went down first since Tammy was still getting things situated in the cabin. The first thing I noticed was the carpet of stars when I looked up. Living in the city we forget what is right there above us. At the Star Hill there are no lights, except the red porch lights on the cabins, and tonight not a cloud in the sky. Star Hill is at 7,200 feet of elevation which is great for observing, the higher the better. We had around 90 minutes until moon-rise which would wash out all but the brightest objects. In the darkest of the evening around 8:00 PM you could see clearly with the naked eye the Milky Way band. At one point in the evening while staring up I saw a satellite fly through it's orbit, again just with the naked eye.
We spent the evening with different stars. We visited the Orion Nebulae, a couple of different star clusters, got a view of Saturn that was stunning. Phil dropped in a 9mm eyepiece (resulting in over 32x magnification) with Saturn and you could even make out some of the Cassini rings, and around it you could see some of it's moons. I wondered which one was Titan. It's mind-blowing that we have a spacecraft on the surface! We checked out some binary stars (star pairs that orbit each other) and also looked at a number of other galaxies.
Phil and I chatted about astronomy and Tammy ducked into the library that is off the observation deck. The library is heated, which is why Tammy was going in there, and also has a PC with software to help with star maps and a ton of books. Phil has been doing astronomy for decades and has run the Star Hill for two of those decades. He has more knowledge of astronomy in his little finger than I have all in so I try to learn some things and not sound like too big of an idiot. He's patient.
We waited for a bit, checking out other stars, for Jupiter to rise where we could see it. The Moon was quickly beating Jupiter to rise but Jupiter is bright enough that we could see it clearly even with the moon-rise. The view of Jupiter in the eyepiece was amazing. You could clearly make out the bands of Jupiter and even see a handful of it's moons in the view.
We called it a night around 9:30 PM and returned to the cabin to play some Boggle before going to sleep. I think Boggle has to be my favorite game, anyway. The temperature had dropped to freezing, we'll wear warmer clothes tomorrow. We have the 16" SCT reserved tomorrow along with the SBIG CCD camera. I'm hopeful to get a couple of pictures through the 16" to commemorate our visit. This will only be feasible with the help of Phil since astrophotography is daunting to even advanced amateurs, which I am not. I'm also going to try to get some shots of the Milky Way band with my SLR.