Chicago's distant suburbs may not offer the kind of pitch-black sky that deep-sky observers crave. But earlier this month the view overhead was still good enough to draw nearly a thousand stargazers from across the Midwest for a pair of star parties on successive weekends. The inaugural Prairie Skies Star Party (PSSP) took place September 9–12 at Camp Shaw-waw-nas-see, a wooded site about 40 miles south of Chicago and just a few miles from Kankakee. The following weekend, September 16–19, the 25th annual Astrofest was held on the grounds of a sprawling farm some 8 miles west of Kankakee.
The two gatherings have a common history. Although the Chicago Astronomical Society sponsors Astrofest, in recent years some of the event's key planners had no formal affiliation with the society. Last year CAS president Walter Glogowski assumed control of Astrofest 2003 after a falling out with past organizers Cliff Trahan and John and Betty Weber, among others. It would also prove to be Astrofest's last appearance at its traditional Camp Shaw-waw-nas-see site. This year the event moved to Vana's Farm, an expansive tract of grass and corn fields. When Trahan and the Webers learned that Astrofest was changing venues, they quickly banded together as the Amateur Astronomy Events and Conventions Association (AAECA) and reserved "Camp Shaw" for a competing star party to be held one week earlier.
The Prairie Skies event wasn't announced until late May. But it went off smoothly, drawing about 180 people to the familiar surroundings of Camp Shaw. Generally clear skies prevailed, though heavy dew forced most who observed to stop stargazing around midnight. Overall, light pollution from Chicago and Kankakee dominated the northern and eastern horizons, but skies were relatively dark to the south and west, and the summer Milky Way arched clearly and dramatically overhead.
Although it doesn't offer the cabins and other amenities of Camp Shaw, Vana's Farm offers wide-open observing fields with unrestricted views. This year more than 800 stargazers gathered there to celebrate Astrofest's silver anniversary. After a thorough soaking on Thursday, attendees benefited from a passing cold front that brought generally clear skies the following two nights. A spacious barn, used for talks and meals, was just a few steps from a row of vendors and the observing fields beyond. Dark sky to the south, west, and overhead provided satisfying views of late summer's deep-sky bonanza. This year also featured observing workshops for the state's science teachers.
The PSSP's organizers intend to make it an annual event, to be held at Camp Shaw in early or mid-September for many years to come. And Glogowski says the CAS is so pleased with Vana's farm that the society plans to build an observatory there. These events, together with the Illinois Dark Skies Star Party (held near Springfield), have given the Prairie State several options for early autumn stargazing.