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SN 2011fe from Saskatchewan

Posted by Aaron Price on September 7, 2011 - 10:48am

As part of our centennial celebration star party talks I was able to attend the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party at the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. SN 2011fe was discovered during the star party and made for some exciting evenings.

I was hosted by Rick Huziak and his lovely family. After flying into Saskatoon, we had ~5 hour drive to Cypress Hills. This was during the end of harvest season so the fields were covered in recently cut crops and harvesters were still leaving trails of dust in the distance. It was a beautiful drive because the weather was perfect, the fields golden and there are slightly rolling hills in the area that give you perspective and things to look at. I truly appreciated seeing a geography and part of the world I had not visited before.

The star party itself was perhaps the best star party I've ever been to. It was extremely well organized yet the staff and visitors were all laid back. The first day began with the dedication of a new observatory and astronomy meeting center which involved local amateur astronomy leaders, politicians and park employees and volunteers. They made a surprise announcement that the local electrical company had agreed to retrofit all the lights in the park with fixtures that have night-sky friendly features such as full cut-off fixtures, timers and the ability to contact the company when they short out. This endevour had been >5 years in the making and was a nice surprise to the crowd. Cypress Hills is an official dark sky preserve in Canada which not only helps astronomers but also has had a measurable impact on wildlife and boosts tourism as well. And it made for some of the best views of the Milky Way I'd seen since the star party at the Mauna Kea visitor's center during the AAVSO's 91st Spring Meeting. All of this is possible because of a long-standing and close relationship the amateur astronomers in the area have with the park. They put in lots of volunteer time and built good relations with the park staff and management.

I gave a talk on the first night of the star party, after the dedication, about the first 100 years of the AAVSO - with a focus on our relationship with the RASC. I was also scheduled to give a short, informal talk on epsilon Aurigae the next evening. However, SN 2011fe was discovered in the meantime. Cypress Hills is a very rural area. There is no cell phone access and the hotel had one satellite Internet connection being shared by hundreds of amateur astronomers. In other words, it did not work 95% of the time. And when it did work, it was incredibly slow. After spending almost the entire day trying, I was able to download a couple of charts and the Special Notice. I could not find a printer to use at the hotel, so I loaded the charts on my iPad and covered it in a thick red tape attendees were using on their car lights. It made it difficult to read, but worked in a pinch.

So that evening I called an audible and switched my talk to SN 2011fe. Thanks to the hard work of Robert Fidrich and Matt Templeton, a sequence had already been loaded into VSP. AAVSO member Chuck Pullen teaches classes on astronomy and spontaneously forwarded me an e-mail he sent to his students about the important of this SN. That helped me since I did not have sufficient net access to do any research on this SN. The initiative of people like Robert and Chuck is a nice testamonial to the awesomeness of our membership.

After the talk, a member of the audience came up and told me he had been taking DSLR images of M101 the last few nights. So we thought he may have had a pre-discovery image. After further investigation that evening, it turned out he didn't have a pre-discovery image, but he did have very early images. The observer was having a great time and sounded like he was a convert into DSLR photometry. At the observing session, I was able to make visual observations of the SN with Rick Huziak, Gord Sarty and Mark De Jong. Below is a light curve of the SN with observations made at SSSP marked with crosshairs.

Many other star party attendees came by and said they saw the supernovae or asked for help finding it. I also heard people discussing it in the background chatter of the main telescope field. It seemed to have caught the interest of many. Being able to see a Type 1 supernovae with your naked eye, and in such a nice looking galaxy, was a blast.

I highly recommend this star party to anyone who lives in the area. I hope to return, whether in an official capacity or simply on a family vacation. The park itself is very nice and has lots of modern facilities without being too crowded.

Thanks to SSSP and the Saskatchewan government for providing support for the trip.

Here are some pics from the trip:

The drive.

The dedication.


Panoramic w/Rick - click for large version.

Prairie.

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