Every amateur astronomer
should attend at least one major star party. It gives you the
opportunity to observe under dark skies, interact with hundreds of
other amateur astronomers, attend lectures by well known amateur and
professional astronomers, and see telescopes of every design and size
possible. It's also a great excuse to travel and see different
parts of the country.
I've been fortunate enough to have attended four major star parties
now; the Texas Star Party in 2001 and 2002, the Nebraska Star Party in
2002, Starfest in 2001 and 2003, and finally the Winter Star Party
(WSP) in 2005.
The WSP is organized annually by the Southern Cross Astronomical
Society of Miami, Florida. Its creator is Tippy D’Auria,
imagined the event becoming a winter refuge for those of us living in
the frozen northern states. Seems like a no brainer really! The
first WSP was held in February 1985 at Mahogany Hammock in the
Everglades, which by all accounts was infested with mosquitoes and
crawling with alligators. Tippy, who always seems to have a cigar
in his hand, is still a big part of WSP but retired as its director in
2001. The event is now directed by respected astrophotographer
Today, WSP is held at Camp Wesumkee, a Girl Scout camp on West
Summerland Key (between Marathon and Key West) in the Florida Keys
(Latitude: 24.648º N, Longitude: 81.310º
Observing at 24º latitude in February sure has its
For one, you can observe the spoils of the winter Milky Way without
fear of freezing to death. Constellations below Canis Major like
Puppis, Vela, Carina, Centaurus, and Crux are now within view as well
as some of their deep sky objects (more on them later).
The 21st WSP was held from February 7 – 12. However, due to
work schedule of my traveling companion Jean DeMott, we weren't able to
leave Kalamazoo until February 7th. After two 13 hours days
behind the wheel and about 1,560 miles later we arrived at Camp
Wesumkee at 11:30 pm on February 8th. Entrance by car was
forbidden since we arrived well after the cut off time of 7:00 pm, so I
parked my Jeep on the side of Route 1.
As soon I got out of the car I did what any amateur astronomer would
have done – I looked up. I was amazed at how dark it
All my previous star party trips have been either during the spring or
summer, so this was the first time I clearly saw the winter portion of
the Milky Way. I did see the light domes from Marathon and Key
West that I read about in past WSP reports, but it wasn't as bad as I
Fellow Kalamazoo Astronomical Society (KAS) member Rich Mather was
awaiting our arrival and helped us carry some of our bags into the
camp. Jean and I decided to reserve a chickee instead of camping
out. (We didn't have room in the car for my tent anyway.)
After stumbling around in the dark we finally tracked down the
“Herschel” chickee (#8), which was at the west end of the
The chickees reminded me of something out of Gilligan’s Island;
although instead of swinging hammocks we had bunks. The roof was
made out of palm thatch and the walls were screens with yellow tarps to
protect us from the elements. We woke up our chickee mates, a
couple from Virginia, as soon as we came through the noisy screen door.
Once we got our gear stored we headed over to the other side of the
camp to meet up with another KAS member, Robert Wade. I couldn't
set up my equipment, so we made due with a few peaks through Robert's
awesome 20” Obsession. He also had to show off his new
system, which was way cool. Clouds rolled in a bit later, so we
decided to call it a night. It did clear up again, but after 13
hours on the road it was time to get some shut eye.
Wednesday morning gave us our first sunlit view of the camp. It
was nice stepping out of the chickee and seeing the ocean just a few
yards to the south. After breakfast, I decided to hit the
showers, which were on the other side of the camp (right near where we
set up our telescopes). I was afraid a long line would be waiting
for me, but I was able to shave and shower pretty quickly. The
water pressure wasn't great, but at least it was cold! (I did
manage to take a couple warm showers by the end of the week though -
that is, at least when the showers were operating). The bathroom
and shower facilities sure weren't designed for nearly 600 men.
By the end of the week, the men's bathroom was shut down, so the
women's became co-ed.
Once all that morning stuff was out of the way I got down to business
I set up my telescopes! Unfortunately, this meant that I would
miss the majority of the image processing presentations. I did
catch part of the last presentation by Jack Newton. Bill Nigg,
another KAS member attending WSP, did tape all the presentations so
I’ll just have to borrow his tapes later. Jean and I didn't
arrange for dinner at Micki’s Kitchen Concession (located on the
so we had dinner at Mangrove Mama’s on Sugarloaf Key. We
with plenty of time to get ready for the night ahead.
Once it got dark enough on Wednesday night I did a rough
polar alignment and then prepared to do some wide-field
astrophotography. First, I did some visual observing just to get
a feel for the quality of the sky conditions. It was very good,
but the transparency was nowhere near what you get at the Texas Star
Party. However, the seeing is what WSP is famous for and the
reputation proved itself once I turned my scope over to Saturn. A
magnification of 500x gave a pleasing view, but 250x was a bit more
comfortable. Definitely better than anything we get with the
often turbulent seeing in Michigan. I then did several shots of
Orion with my 28 mm and 50 mm lenses and some shots of the belt/sword
region of Orion with a 135 mm lens.
I was going to go back to some visual observing, so I took my Kendrick
dew rope off and then removed the dust cap (I put it back on while I
did photography) and noticed that the corrector plate dewed up.
Now, it must have done this in the time that I removed the dew rope,
took off the dust cap, and then grab my dew cap. Wednesday night
was extremely dewy, so that shut several people down early.
I attended several lectures on Thursday. First was Alice Newton's
“X-Rated – Adults Only” talk, which was very well
hilarious. She made excellent use of Photoshop to paste well
known WSP attendees onto some very
odd and raunchy photographs. It's really something you have to
experience first hand! I also attended the talk by Mike Reynolds
on “Antarctic Meteorites”, which was also very good.
A low pressure system came in later in the evening, which brought
clouds and rain. Jean and I decided to hang out in the chickee
and read for a while. The front finally passed over and it
cleared up again. However, it was too windy to do any observing
through my LX200. We did get up again later in the morning to get
our first glimpse of the week at Crux, the Southern Cross and Alpha and
Beta Centauri. Jean had already seen them before, but this was
the first time for me.
On Friday, I was finally able to put my Coronado SolarMax 40 Hydrogen
Alpha filter on my Pronto and check out some prominences. Again,
the seeing was spectacular (compared to Michigan) and prominences never
fail to please. Several other WSP attendees gathered around to
get a view. I also had the opportunity to compare my H-alpha
setup with Coronado’s Personal Solar Telescope (PST). I
gentleman with a PST to setup next to my Pronto. The
Pronto/SolarMax combo did give a slightly crisper and noticeably
brighter image. Still, the PST is an incredible value.
I was planning to image the Sun with my webcam, but the door prize
drawings were about to begin. The door prizes were numerous and
most were pretty valuable (as you would expect from a large star party
like WSP). Ticket number after ticket number was announced and
many great prizes were given away; then came another door prize –
Denkmeier Binocular Viewer worth $700. A ticket number was drawn,
but no one came forward. MUST BE PRESENT TO WIN! Then
another ticket was drawn and Tippy announced the number:
454. That was MY number and I screamed “YES!” as loud
could. How lucky was that? In the end though, I decided to
trade the binocular viewer for a Canon Digital Rebel SLR camera from a
guy on Astromart. I'm too cheap to buy eyepieces in pairs; plus
I've been itching to get into digital imaging for some time and this
was my chance.
After the door prizes was the WSP cook-out celebration. The food
wasn't as good as the catered dinner at Starfest, but it was easier
than hunting down another restaurant in the Keys. The line was
long, but it moved pretty fast. The choices were a hamburger,
chicken, or a hot dog. It was going to be a long night, so I
decided to have all three!
Friday night was almost entirely free of clouds and the heavy dew we
had on Wednesday. This was the night I planned to start doing
some more serious astrophotography, so I took some time to drift-align
my LX200. However, the wind was still a bit heavy so that really
limited what I could do. I needed practice with drift alignment
anyway and I wanted to wait for the Waxing Crescent Moon to set as well.
After several hours of astrophotography I decided to take a break and
then do some visual observing again. Mainly because the globular
cluster Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) and the Peculiar Galaxy Centaurus A
(NGC 5128) were coming into view. These became favorites of mine
at the Texas Star Party. The view of Centaurus A was better at
TSP, but Omega Centauri did seem to be even more spectacular at
WSP. I also got to observe the Eta Carinae Nebula (NGC 3372) and
the Jewel Box open cluster (NGC 4755) for the first time as well.
The Jewel Box look a bit subdued because of its low altitude, but Eta
Carinae was unreal. Normally, my observing skills are good enough
to sum up an object with just a minute or two of viewing. Eta
Carinae is very complex and demands a meticulous study. Observing came
to an abrupt end early on Saturday morning when my deep cycle marine
battery ran out of juice.
On Saturday, Jean, Rich, Robert, and I did a little bit of exploring
around the Keys. Our main objective was to find an alligator or
two and some Key Deer. Key Deer are endangered and can be found
only on Big Pine Key today. We stopped at a couple of parks and
walked around the trails. We managed to find a couple of
alligators at Blue Hole. The largest was approximately 8 feet
long. Both alligators were acting very lazy and just soaking up
the afternoon Sun. We failed to find Key Deer at the parks and we
were starting to get pretty hungry. We then made a wrong turn
down some back road and finally managed to track down some Key
Deer. They look exactly like the White Tail Deer we have in
Michigan – just smaller. With that out of the way we then
dinner at the No Name Pub on No Name Key. For some reason, they
have thousands and thousands of one dollar bills hanging from the
ceiling and glued to the wall.
We then returned to the camp and it looked like some one dropped the
atom bomb. Many people were in the process of packing up to leave
or already left. Bill Nigg and his wife were gone as well.
The sky was looking pretty cloudy, so Robert and Rich decided to break
their equipment down as well. It actually turned out to be the
best night of the week (at least for me). The wind was all but
gone and the dew was nonexistent. I spent almost the entire night
either snapping a few last pictures or just observing. I then
grabbed a quick shower at about 5:30 am and then got about 90 minutes
Jean and I packed up the chickee and then I broke down my telescope
shortly after sunrise on Sunday morning. I always hate taking my
scope down at the end of a star party. Jean did most of the
driving that day, because I could barely stay awake after observing all
night. We spent some time exploring the parts of the Keys that we
missed on the way in because it was dark. We also explored a
small part of the Everglades shortly before sunset.
On Monday we checked out the Space Transit Planetarium, which is
directed by the Star Gazer himself Jack Horkheimer. We spent the
entire day on Tuesday visiting Kennedy Space Center. We took the
“NASA Up Close” bus tour. Our first stop was the
Space Station Center where we got to see actual pieces of the space
station awaiting delivery. We then went to a viewing platform
where we could see Launching Pads 39A and 39B. We then drove by
the legendary Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which was still missing
some tiles because of all the hurricanes they had to endure last summer.
The tour bus then dropped us off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
We saw the actual control center used in the Apollo days. We then
went into the main part of the display which was dominated by a vintage
Saturn V rocket. Very BIG! Exploring the Apollo/Saturn V
Center took quite a bit of time because there was so much to see and
do. We finally had to pull ourselves away, because there was
still so much stuff to take in. I wished we could have stayed
another day, but we'll just have to plan another trip.
We spent the night with some of Jean's old friends and then made our
way to Nashville, Tennessee. After about 10 hours on the road we
crossed the state line into Michigan, which gave us lake effect snow
showers as a home coming gift. We were home and winter had
by Richard Bell