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Why a Remote Corner of Oklahoma’s Panhandle Might Be The Perfect Place to Throw a Star Party

An amateur astronomer looks at chart on a red-filtered computer monitor at the 2016 Okie-Tex Star Party near Oklahoma's Black Mesa State Park.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

An amateur astronomer looks at chart on a red-filtered computer monitor at the 2016 Okie-Tex Star Party near Oklahoma's Black Mesa State Park.

The Oklahoma Panhandle is empty and hard to get to. The region attracts few people, very little industry and none of the light pollution that accompany both. It’s a remote location that’s earning a national reputation as the perfect spot to stare deep into space.

Terry Zimmerman adjusts the eyepiece on the 12.5-inch f5 Dobsonian he built from a kit — technical talk for a telescope that’s so tall, you have to climb a stepladder to take a peek.

“Right now I’ve got it set on M13,” he says, focusing the scope on the globular cluster of stars in the constellation Hercules. “It looks like a snowball or a popcorn ball.”

Zimmerman is from Amarillo, Texas. He and other members from his local astronomy club drove to the far northwestern corner of Oklahoma’s panhandle for the Okie-Tex Star Party. The week-long event continues through this weekend near Black Mesa, the state’s highest point.

Zimmerman says the plateaus in the desolate, shortgrass prairie near the tiny town of Kenton are the perfect environment for stargazing.

“You get away from the city lights, the light pollution,” he says. “The nice thing about here is you can get to see the stars, a lot of them, naked eye. You can even see some of the galaxies naked eye.”

The skies in the Oklahoma Panhandle are dark enough to view the Milky Way without a telescope.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The skies in the Oklahoma Panhandle are dark enough to view the Milky Way without a telescope.

Dark, desolate

The starlight is immersive. It’s so bright, attendees can walk around at midnight without a flashlight — which is good because flashlights are banned because they disrupt night vision unless they’re outfitted with a red filter.

Fred Gassert, an elevator contractor from Wichita, Kan., who also serves as president of the Kansas Astronomical Observers, has set up his stargazing gear at the of a row of observers. The club brought several large telescopes, and Gassert pointed one at a low angle and focused on the fuzzy-edged Andromeda Galaxy.

Gassert turns his head and asks the shadowy figures behind him, “How far is Andromeda?”

“Two-point six million light-years,” a reply echoes.

“A couple blocks,” Gassert says, laughing.

Okie-Tex attendees were excited to let strangers look through their scopes and eager to lead the uninitiated through a deep space show and tell.

“It’s just to have fun, to enjoy the night skies,” Gassert says.

The people stretch the definition of “amateur” astronomers. They set up arrays of cameras with special lenses for astrophotography, unpack trailers and assemble banks of monitors and computer-guided telescopes, and camp in sleek RVs outfitted with red-filtered lights and blackout shades.

An amateur astronomer covers up his telescope shortly after sunrise at the 2016 Okie-Tex Star Party.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

An amateur astronomer covers up his telescope shortly after sunrise at the 2016 Okie-Tex Star Party.

Crowded space

About 500 people registered for Okie-Tex 2016, including visitors from Australia, Canada and France, says Chairman Mike Dennis with the The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club, which organizes the annual stargazing event.

Gassert says the dark skies in Oklahoma’s panhandle, the clear weather and the 4,000-foot altitude around Black Mesa combine for the ideal setting.

“I would put it in one of the top star parties in the world,” he says.

In a nearby section of the campground, John Diller is swapping out eyepieces on his scope. Diller says he was retired when he took up amateur astronomy. He says he had to get a part-time job to help pay for his growing telescope addiction.

“We just like to spread the wonders of seeing the wonders of the universe,” he says, training his scope on a bright object known as the “Blue Snowball.”

The glowing flare is a glimpse of a violent cosmic past.

“It’s a so-called planetary nebula,” he says. “Basically, it’s a solar type star that gone through its evolution and puffed up and blew off its outer shell and that’s the outer shell that you see here. ”

Diller, who drove in from Pittsburgh, says the popularity of the Okie-Tex Star Party is starting to create a bit of a catch-22. The setting is perfect because it’s empty and unspoiled by people — a quality that’s attracting large crowds.

“It’s pretty packed,” he says. “We came over the rise there right around noon and it looked like a small-scale city.”

Dennis, with the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club, says the group is planning to expand the footprint of the site for the 2017 event — a move that will give everyone more space to see space.

“It takes some special equipment to get the new area cleared, due to the presence of some particularly tenacious native cactus,” he says.

Heavy Fundraising on State Question 777 Suggests Right-to-Farm is High-Stakes Political Issue

Farmers Wayne and Fred Schmedt watch a combine harvest wheat on their fields near Altus, Okla.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Farmers Wayne and Fred Schmedt watch a combine harvest wheat on their fields near Altus, Okla.

Oklahoma voters will decide in November whether to change the state constitution with new language protecting the agriculture industry.

Informally known as the right-to-farm amendment, State Question 777 raises a lot of legal, environmental and economic questions. A StateImpact analysis of state campaign finance data shows the issue has attracted more direct donations than any other ballot question, suggesting right-to-farm is high-stakes Oklahoma politics.

 

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Decades After Turning Backs on Risky Water, Tulsans Wade Into Arkansas River

Floaters navigate their homemade raft down the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Okla., during the annual Great Raft Race on Labor Day 2016.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Floaters navigate their homemade raft down the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Okla., during the annual Great Raft Race on Labor Day 2016.

The section of the Arkansas River that runs through Tulsa is changing. For much of the city’s history, business owners constructed buildings facing away from what has been considered a polluted eyesore. But now Tulsa is embracing its most prominent physical feature.

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Oklahoma Sets a New Earthquake Record as Aftershocks Jolt Residents, Researchers and Regulators

Mona Denney surveys earthquake damage inside her home near Pawnee, Okla.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Mona Denney surveys earthquake damage inside her home near Pawnee, Okla.

The U.S. Geological Survey is upgrading the strength of an earthquake that shook the state on Sept. 3 to 5.8 magnitude. That change makes the Labor Day weekend temblor the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Oklahoma. The quake is the latest in a seismic surge researchers say has largely been fueled by the oil industry practice of pumping waste fluid into underground disposal wells.

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Right-to-Farm or Right-to-Harm: Oklahoma Voters Get Final Say With SQ 777

Dustin Green, owner of 10 Acre Woods farm near Norman, feeds a few of his 400 or so chickens.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Dustin Green, owner of 10 Acre Woods farm near Norman, feeds a few of his 400 or so chickens.

Oklahoma voters decide on State Question 777 in November. Supporters call the ballot initiative right-to-farm, but opponents prefer right-to-harm. It’s a divisive, national issue that’s made its way to Oklahoma, pitting agriculture against environmentalists and animal rights activists.

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The Oklahoma Oil Billionaire Shaping Donald Trump’s Bid to Win on Energy Issues

Donald Trump at a campaign stop at the Oklahoma State Fair in September 2015.

Brian Hardzinski / KGOU

Donald Trump at a campaign stop at the Oklahoma State Fair in September 2015.

Donald Trump is wooing energy-state voters by promising a presidency that will champion coal, promote drilling and free frackers from federal regulations limiting oil and gas development.

If the Republican candidate’s energy platform sounds like it was written specifically for fossil fuel companies, that’s because an Oklahoma oil billionaire helped craft it.

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With Water Settlement Inked, Tribes Now Selling The Details Back Home

Members of the Choctaw Nation gather at the Hugo Community Center to hear details on the new water deal from attorney Michael Burrage.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Members of the Choctaw Nation gather at the Hugo Community Center to hear details on the new water deal from attorney Michael Burrage.

After five years of confidential negotiations, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations have reached an agreement with the State of Oklahoma over water in southeast Oklahoma. The deal has been praised by state leaders as a historic accord that ends the tribes’ lawsuit that blocked Oklahoma City’s plan to pump water out of the region. But the deal still has to be sold to tribe members in that part of the state.

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The Demotion of a National Park in Oklahoma Exposes Shifting Attitudes About Preserving and Promoting Nature

Kids from a local youth organization laugh and splash in cold, spring-fed pools at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Kids from a local youth organization laugh and splash in cold, spring-fed pools at the Chickasaw National Recreation Area near Sulphur, Okla.

The National Park Service turns 100 this year, and many states are celebrating top-tier environmental landmarks that are a big source of local pride. About half the U.S. states don’t have a national park — including Oklahoma.

That wasn’t always the case, and the story of what happened illustrates a changing view of what national parks are for.

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Why City of Hugo Hasn’t Seen One Cent of Record Settlement Over Improperly Treated Drinking Water

Hugo, Okla., interim City Manager David Rawls.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Hugo, Okla., interim City Manager David Rawls.

Oklahoma’s primary environmental agency made a private contractor pay just under $1 million earlier in a settlement over improperly treated water in a small city in southern Oklahoma. But the state’s budget shortfall swallowed up the money before the city of Hugo had a chance to use it.

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