Winter Star Party ’03: Sunshine, Starlight, and Sweat

Winter Star Party
While much of North America freezes, amateur astronomers flock to the Florida Keys for the annual Winter Star Party.
Courtesy Stephen James O'Meara.
Nearly 600 astronomy enthusiasts from 35 states and a half dozen nations journeyed to the Florida Keys last week to take part in the 19th annual Winter Star Party. With daytime temperatures approaching 90° Fahrenheit (32° Celsius), the gathering was an especially welcome respite to the many attendees who came from the frigid Northeast. And with a latitude of just 25° north, the star party's site — a campground on the south-facing shore of tiny West Summerland Key — offered glimpses of far-southern jewels like Omega Centauri and the Southern Cross as well as near-zenith views of Jupiter and Saturn.

While occasionally cloudy and constantly humid, the weather at last week's WSP allowed for plenty of observing. When clear, the skies regularly enabled 6.5-magnitude stars and numerous star clusters to be viewed with the naked eye, and elusive nebulae were targeted with rich-field refractors and enormous Dobsonians alike. But most eyes were on Jupiter and Saturn when the atmosphere steadied and seeing was at its best. According to WSP founder Tippy D'Auria, this year's WSP endured "a lot less wind" than usual, allowing — at the cost of copious dew — for some unprecedented views of the gas giants. "I've never seen Jupiter and Saturn like this," D'Auria says. In fact, several attendees reported seeing details not only on Jupiter but on its Galilean satellites — a trend no doubt attributable not only to the excellent seeing but to the profusion of first-rate telescopes across tiny Camp Wesumkee.

Jupiter
Taken at WSP last week through Tim Khan's prototype TEC 12-inch Maksutov-Cassegrain at f/63 (shown at left), this color-composite RGB image of Jupiter shows albedo and color differences across the disk of tiny Io (which casts a shadow on Jupiter's western limb). North is up in this image dated February 8, 2003 (06:01 UT).
Sky & Telescope photo by Joshua Roth. Jupiter image courtesy Tim Khan.
Sunrise didn't bring festivities to an end at WSP '03; many telescopes (properly filtered, of course!) pointed Sunward, often outfitted with hydrogen-alpha systems to capture flaming prominences. And when star-partiers weren't out admiring the Sun or their neighbors' telescopes, they attended lectures on the Milky Way and the accelerating universe. In addition, a three-day-long imaging workshop enabled participants to learn the fine points of image processing firsthand from renowned astrophotographers Scott Ireland, Tony Hallas, and Donald Parker. Vendors sold and showed off telescopes, binoculars, and other astro-accessories; equipment changed hands during a Friday-morning swap meet; and close to 80 door prizes found new homes during a sunny Friday-afternoon drawing.

Southern Cross Astronomical Society member Tim Khan ran this year's WSP, taking the torch from D'Auria — who was nevertheless busy giving lectures, awarding prizes, and greeting newcomers and old-timers alike. "A lot of people enjoyed themselves," says Khan, who insists on sharing the credit with his fellow SCAS members as well as the party's attendees.

It's not too early to begin planning your trip to next year's WSP, which will take place from February 16 through February 21 — with a maximum attendance of 600, the event frequently sells out. Next year is WSP's 20th anniversary and Khan promises "something special."