Astronomers flock to dark skies of the Keys for 30th Winter Star Party

Jim Moscheck of Michigan came to the Florida Keys to stay up all night with his “Midnight Mistress,” the nickname his wife gave to his homemade telescope that looks from a distance like a Civil War cannon, only with mirrors.

And Moscheck was not alone.

About 600 astronomers, most of them amateurs and retirees, came from far and near to view the horsehead, little pup, M2, Eta Carinae and other out-of-this-world wonders during the 30th Winter Star Party, hosted over the past week by Miami’s Southern Cross Astronomical Society.

Co-founder Matthew “Tippy” D’Auria, who has attended all 30 parties and calls himself the “Celestial Pirate,” said: “These gems in the sky are my treasure.”

For the first three years, the star party was held at the Mahogany Hammocks at Everglades National Park. It outgrew that space and moved to the Boy Scouts camp in the Lower Keys for three more years before finding a permanent home at the Girl Scouts’ Camp Wesumkee, about 30 miles from Key West.

The stargazers come for the great weather, dark skies and views of the Southern Cross and other stars and constellations, which cannot be seen in most of the continental United States because the curvature of the earth gets in the way.

They come for the steadiness of the atmosphere over water, which does not have the turbulence from the rising heat over the earth’s surface. The steady atmosphere means stars twinkle less — but the planetary views are super sharp.

And they come for the camaraderie. “How often can you go someplace and just talk astronomy? Most people’s eyes glaze over,” said retired nurse Claire Offermann, 75, of Sebastian, who was attending her 28th party.

A few splurge on hotel rooms. But most sleep in a hodgepodge of tents, motorhomes — and in the case of Augie Orlandi of Illinois, on an air mattress in his SUV.

Some stir during the day, attending workshops and lectures, including one given by Valerie Neal, curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s collection of human space flight, and another by “Starman Dan” Joyce, who began making telescope optics in 1968.

But the real action takes place once the sun begins to set. Protective coverings are taken off millions of dollars’ worth of telescopes and accessories, as they begin preparing to see the lighted objects that shine brightly against the dark sky.

Over the years, the equipment has become far more sophisticated. Wireless devices can direct a telescope to hone in directly on a specific star or constellation, enabling the astronomer to spend more time viewing and photographing it and less time trying to find it in the vast skies. Many make use of apps that create virtual real-time displays of the sky’s gems.

The viewing is never the same. “Planets are always in different positions,” said Tim Khan, head of this year’s event. “This is prime time for Jupiter. It rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, so it’s up all night. And storms are always changing its face.”

But there has been a constant: the concerns about the ever-growing loss of dark skies.

“If we don’t control the light pollution that we have, were going to have to take our kids 150 miles out of town to show them what a star looks like just like you have to go to a zoo to see what animals look like,” D’Auria said. “The night sky is a natural resource and belongs to everybody.”

Khan, a structural engineer, added that low-pressure sodium lights should be used to cut down on the amount of light going up into the air.

He worked on an observatory at Florida International University. One of the requirements to qualify as a LEED green building was that light could not be thrown off the property. “It’s a tough requirement, but a good one,” Khan said.

Darkness is a must for astronomers, who are draconian about the rule of no white lights at star parties — they diminish night vision for up to half an hour. To get around, they carry red lights that make the place look like a sprawling brothel.

In 1998, Hurricane Georges wiped out the 40-foot Australian Pines that lined U.S. 1 and blocked the headlights of cars from shining into the camp. “We couldn’t see any cars coming down the road at all until that happened,” D’Auria said.

To help out the Girl Scouts and preserve the darkness of the camp, the Southern Cross Astronomical Society raised money to plant 400 native buttonwoods.

Astronomers leave their pricey equipment everywhere, unattended. Only once in 30 years was there ever a report of a theft. In 2008, a man from Pennsylvania claimed that a rare meteorite discovered in the Atacama Desert of Chile in 1822 was stolen. The meteorite was never found, and D’Auria said he always has been suspicious of the claim.

D’Auria first became enamored with the sky in 1954 while serving as an electrician’s mate on a Navy submarine patrolling the North Atlantic. One night he volunteered to help the quarter master with sextant observations of the stars for navigation.

“I came out of the hatch, and it’s dark,” he recalled. “It was like bumping your head on black velvet lined with diamonds. The quartermaster showed me some stars like Polaris and Arcturas.”

But it was not until the mid ’70s, when a neighbor showed him Saturn through a two-inch telescope, that D’Auria made astronomy a passionate hobby. “I looked at the front of the telescope to see if he had hung a picture of Saturn on it,” he said. “It just blew me away.”

Dr. Barbara Harris, a retired OB/GYN physician now living in New Smyrna Beach, became enthralled with the skies in high school while taking a Greek mythology class.

“I would learn about Hercules and Orion and want to find the constellation associated with that myth,” she said.

After retiring, she bought 200 acres so she could have dark skies around her home with an observatory — where in 2010 she became the first to discover the much-awaited outburst of the recurrent nova U Scorpii.

“This star brightens about a million times in 24 hours, and then it stars to dim again,” she said. “It triggered the Hubble and other telescopes around the world to observe it.”

Many astronomers gaze out into the universe, wondering if there is other life. “I don’t think we’ve been visited by that life,” Harris said. “But when you think of all the stars out there and all the planets around the stars out there, it really is hard to believe it’s just us.”

While manning a booth at the star party, Harris said she was excited that NASA had just announced that the Kepler Space Telescope had discovered 715 new planets orbiting distant stars, nearly doubling the number known to humanity.

Nobody was expecting to make a big discovery before this year’s star party ended last Sunday. But Mark Kuba, a director at the 152-year-old Chicago Astronomical Society, was like a kid in anticipation of finally getting to see the Horsehead Nebula. He tried once during a February trip to Colorado but froze and went home without seeing it.

“Three minutes ago I saw festoons in Jupiter for the first time,” he said. “But for me, the Holy Grail is the horsehead.”

The swirling cloud of dark dust and gases in the constellation Orion, about 1,500 lights years from earth, bears the resemblance of a horse’s head when viewed from Earth.

The night before, Darren Drake of the Chicago Astronomical Society said he briefly saw the Pulsar of the Crab Nebula. “It’s a neutron star that is so dense it weighs five billion tons per teaspoon. The physics makes it so amazing.”

Set up beside them was Chuck Jones, 79, who said he became enamored with the stars while growing up in Detroit. He was planning an all-nighter with his $12,000 telescope. His mission: to take three images. It takes patience, because each image is made from about 100 to 170 long-exposure pictures that are stacked on each other in a computer.

Jones was trying to get a better image of M31: “To be able to capture an image of light that left about 3 million years ago is actually looking back in history. The universe is pretty awesome.”

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