& Travel

Winter Star Party 2023

WSP Welcome Image

The annual Winter Star Party in the Florida Keys is my favorite annual event, always held in February or occasionally in very late January or early March. It’s almost a religious pilgrimage for me, and I’ve only missed once in 20 years since I started attending, and that was due to a death in the family (I was already packed and loaded when I got the worst phone call of my life… but that’s another story).

Morning Milky Way
Earth clouds on star clouds. The Summer Milky Way makes an appearance just before dawn.

What’s so special about the Winter Star Party, or WSP? I think it’s the location and of course the people. A star party is after all a social event, and I have met many lifelong friends at WSP. It’s currently held at adjacent girl scout and boy scout campgrounds on “Scout Key”, south of Marathon, but sill 40 miles from Key West. The girl scout side has been ravaged by hurricanes and is a bit more of a primitive camping experience. The boy scout side however is well manicured, has power, a clean and modern bath/shower facility, and even “glamping” tents with AC. Yes, both sides have been hit by the same hurricanes, but the boy scouts have built back. It’s never too late to teach our children that the boys have all the money and get the nicer things… (that’s sarcasm btw… or an indictment, take your pick).

Omega Centauri Image
Hands down, my favorite WSP image visually or photographically is the great globular cluster Omega Centauri.

There is light pollution from the keys of course, so it’s not “Okey-Tex” dark skies, but the view to the South is dark, and only with a long exposure (with a camera on a tripod) can you see a small light dome on the horizon… from Havana Cuba! The southern sky is a treat, among my favorites, there’s Omega Centauri, the king of globular clusters, Centaurus A, an amazing irregular galaxy, and if the weather gods show favor — the great Eta Carina nebula will make an appearance, no more than 6 degrees above the ocean’s most southerly view.

Centaurus A Image
Centaurus A is a peculiar galaxy and one of my favorite WSP targets.

The keys are a special place too. I live in Florida, but I live near Orlando and the “attractions” are only an hour away. The Florida Keys are almost like another state entirely. Tropical beaches, the vibrant blues and green of the ocean, tiki huts, and seafood galore. People from all over the world come to my part of Florida on vacation. If you live here, going to the Keys is where we go on vacation. There’s plenty to do in the keys too for your non-astro-nut family members. Key West is also a whole other world in itself. You can rent a boat, go snorkeling, kayaking, fishing, the list is endless.

Epic Dew
Soaking wet dew graced us the last clear night of the star party.

This past year was my first year in nearly two decades that I did not attend as a vendor representative, and the first held in three years due to cancelations over the Pandemic. The weather was clear, but windy most of the week, and the smart astrophotographers found places in the lee of the wind. I managed to get some good deep sky data, and even did some lunar and solar lucky imaging.

The last clear night was Friday, and the air was still, and heavy with dew, the worst dew event I recall at this event. I had not prepared for this, and my scope dewed over immediately after dark. I put on a dew strap, cranked it up, and used an alcohol wipe to repeatedly remove the moisture. It took about 45 minutes, but finally I was back in business and got my best image data of the week that night. In fact, I hit the celestial jackpot that night.

Eta Carina Image
Not too bad for only 40 minutes worth of time between 4 and 6 degrees above the horizon!

Early in the morning a friend behind me was “observing” Eta Carina, only about 4 degrees above the horizon. I thought, “well, why not”, and I tried a slew and a single exposure. I expected it to be behind a tree, or below the berm between me and the beach. Surprise! It was not well centered, but it was there, and it was bright! I carefully centered it and found tracking was not that great so close to the horizon, but I could take decent enough 15 second exposures. So, I took 156 of them before a tree did in fact obscure my view! I alternated between red, green, and blue with my monochrome Player One Poseidon-M camera and managed to pull off a decent enough image. One day… I MUST travel south of the Equator to do this target justice.

In the meantime, I’m counting down the weeks until my next “Latitude Adjustment” in February of 2024. See you there? Stop by and say hello!

The “Slaughter Moon!”

Moon and old fort
Moon rise over “Slaughter Bay” in St. Augustine Florida.

In the almost 30 years I’ve lived in Florida, my favorite place to visit is still St. Augustine. I first visited as a child of 9 or 10 while on a family vacation from my native Kentucky, and the place has left an everlasting mark on me. One of my favorite things to do is photography here, and I always try to do a little nightscape work if we are staying overnight. The Saturday a week before Halloween was a great night for this.

I planned the Moon rise time using TheSky astronomy software and an iPhone app called PhotoPills. I recently picked up a 1.4 tele-extender used from a friend and was really wanting to try one of those Moon images you see where the photographer is a good distance from some famous landmark and catches the Moon coming up behind it. I had wanted to use the St. Augustine lighthouse, but the Fort seemed a safer venue, and indeed it was. I was surround by MOBS of people well after dark. It was now a week away from Halloween and the walking ghost tours business was booming. I’d setup in a lonely location, and then there’d be a huge crowd around me in no time as I had inadvertently picked a station on someone’s walking tour! This happened three times. Really.

People were friendly though, and many took note and were respectful of my gear and obvious pains I was going through to get this shot. Most pulled out their cell phones and took a few pictures themselves as the Moon came up behind the old fort (Castillo de San Marcos National Monument). I hadn’t planned it this way, but the clouds shrouding the Moon just really set the atmosphere for a spooky photo. They really were this red and orange low on the horizon, and I realized only afterwards that I had captured this directly over the “Matanzas Bay”, which means “Slaughter Bay” in Spanish. There is a bloody story behind this name that I’ll leave to you to research on your next trip to St. Augustine!

Tech stuff — This was two exposures on a tripod layered together with Photoshop. They were seconds apart at ISO 3200, with the only changes in settings being focus and exposure time. The fort exposure is 3.2 seconds and you can see how well-lit it was from the surrounding lights. The Moon however was much brighter and was taken with a 1/80th second exposure. The focal ratio for both was also f/8. The camera was a Canon EOS Ra, the lens a Canon 300mm F/4 L lens, and the Mark II 1.4 Canon tele-extender. I used the camera’s self-timer to avoid camera shake. Pro tip: Always remove your UV/IR filter that protects your expensive lenses when doing nightscapes!


Stardust Ranch

How much longer will sights and images like this be possible? All over the world, astronomers, both amateur and professional alike seek out dark sites such as this dark sky camp shown here in Okeechobee Florida. Not only is it getting harder and harder to find areas far enough from city lights (and here, you can still see the sky glow from the city of Okeechobee), but inevitably the sky will be filled with satellites streaking through our images. The recent Space X launch has drawn a lot of interest to this, and bear in mind there are dozens of geosynchronous satellites already in this image that you can’t see. Make no mistake though, the drum of progress will demand that this number grows to thousands to tens of thousands in the coming years, and we need to be prudent and responsible about how we affect our environment, and this includes the night sky.

Milky Way over a dome
The glorious skies of Stardust Ranch

Cosmic Tourists

This year the Winter Star Party returned to the Florida Keys after having to relocate for a year due to the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Irma. We could not have been treated better by the weather, and there’s going to be several additions to my gallery from this years photography and imaging. This is my favorite image from the trip, and I think possibly my favorite nightscape I’ve ever taken. I also won first place in the wide field imaging contest with this shot. Just before dawn, I knew the Summer Milky Way would be making an appearance and I wanted to catch it behind a row of telescopes setup for the star party. While scoping out (ha, see what I did there) locations, I saw two other people shooting possibly Venus and Jupiter being reflected in the water. I knew I had the perfect shot that captured the essence of the Winter Star Party! Two star gazers enjoying the view in tourist central (the Florida Keys). Truly, we are all here as cosmic tourists.

Canon 5D Mark III
10 seconds @ISO 3200
Sigma 20mm art lens f/1.4

Astrophoto of astrophotograhers
Cosmic Tourists