Winter Star Party on Big Pine Key
By Saundra Amrhein
Jeff Struve had driven more than 1,000 miles, from Iowa to Big Pine Key, to see it.
After setting up his four telescopes and two observatory tents, Struve waited for the sun to set.
Spread out above him was a scene that would keep him awake with excitement until 3:30 the next morning – a scene that draws stargazers to Florida from as far away as Germany, Scotland and England.
“I’ve never seen a sky like this before,” said 59-year-old Struve, as the bright white light of Jupiter shone on one side of the horizon, Venus and Mars on the other, and in between right overhead, the Orion constellation, brilliant and radiant like thousands of tiny headlights against the black carpet of night.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Struve said.
While Florida is known to many as a popular travel destination for its white-sand beaches, its bevy of wildlife and its world-famous theme parks, thousands of amateur astronomers treasure it for something else: one of the best places on the planet to gaze at the stars and planets.
That is particularly true near Big Pine Key, about 35 miles northeast of Key West, and where the Southern Cross Astronomical Society of Miami holds its annual Winter Star Party in February.
For most of its 31 years, the Winter Star Party has been at Camp Wesumkee on Scout Key just east of Big Pine Key – a location that makes for optimal stargazing for several key reasons, says Winter Star Party event director Tim Khan.
The “dark sky” location means there is minimal light pollution from urban areas.
Its latitudinal position near the most southern point of the United States allows for great views of constellations such as the Southern Cross, Carina and Vela, and objects like Omega Centauri and Eta Carinae that are difficult if not impossible to see from northern states and countries.
The “steady seeing” through the calm air of the Keys makes for transparent and detailed viewing of the planets and stars – whose lights shine steadily without the twinkling caused elsewhere by atmospheric turbulence.
“We don’t want to see stars that twinkle,” Khan said.
The combination of these factors – plus Florida’s normally pleasant winter temperatures and nearby attractions – draws up to 600 amateur astronomers and family members or friends to the Winter Star Party every year, Khan said.
“It’s while people up in the north are freezing,” Khan said.
During the day stargazers cover their canon-sized telescopes, attend lectures about history or astronomy technology that are held amid the tents, campers, park benches, palm trees, silver Airstreams and other RVs.
Past speakers have included astronauts and empoyees of NASA. A special camp and education sessions are held for children and young astronomers.
Guests also leave the campgrounds to go kayaking, sailing and snorkeling or to visit Key West.
For his part, Struve planned to visit some of Florida’s other popular attractions on his trip, including the Kennedy Space Center.
But for the moment, he was plenty busy tracking the dome of constellations above him.
“We see the Milky Way at home,” he said, adding that from that vantage point it was nothing more than a smudgy cloud. “Here it’s stars.”
Brad Hoehne, 46, from Ohio, positioned his camera to capture the fronds of palm trees with Venus in the background. Hoehne – who drove down with bird-watching friends, stopping at a birder park near Clearwater Beach on the way – has been to other star parties. This was his first time to the Winter Star Party. He was amazed by the steady air that allowed him to get a great look through the scopes at the details of Jupiter’s moons.
But just as he was talking, the silver outline of another beauty caught his attention – accented by two nearby white dots signifying Mars and Venus.
“Look at the moon!” Hoehne called out, scrambling for his camera.
In that cry was the excitement that recalled a common childhood discovery among the stargazers here – the beauty of the universe overhead – and, at least in many parts of Florida, one that shines so spectacularly, if we just look up to notice.
If you go…
To get a great view of the stars from other Florida vantage points popular with amateur astronomers, check out these additional sites:
- Mahogany Hammock Trail in Everglades National Park
- Bill Sadowski Park in Miami.
- Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park near Okeechobee
- Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna in Northwest Florida
- Chiefland Astronomy Village between Gainesville and Cedar Key, home to the Fall Star Party.
For more about Florida amateur astronomy clubs, check out this list.