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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!