He left home before dawn that Saturday, followed two friends in a caravan to the Keys.
South of Miami where the light is too bright, north of Key West where Navy planes distort the air, the men pitched their tents and telescopes in a shoreside Girl Scout camp.
Big Scout Key. The best place in the world, they say, to capture the stars.
"You can see things there that you can't see anywhere else," says John O'Neill, 69, an advertising salesman and amateur astronomer from Seminole.
During the last week of February, O'Neill camped on the isolated island near Mile Marker 34, at the 30th annual Winter Star Party, where 550 enthusiasts from around the globe gathered to probe the deep sky.
"We have people from Canada, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands. This is the biggest event in Florida, and draws professionals as well as amateurs," says Chuck Broward, of Miami's Southern Cross Astronomical Society, which hosted the event.
Some made the pilgrimage to see the Southern Cross, the small constellation that guided ancient mariners, which isn't visible anywhere else in the country. Others wanted to peer into star clusters or study nebulas.
O'Neill had made a list of four things he hoped to shoot with his $18,000 camera and telescope combination: a reflection nebula called NGC 1333; a pair of stars about to collide, drawn together in a dangerous dance; the "antenna galaxy" with its long streamers of star dust; and a blooming nebula named Thor's Helmet.
He wanted to win the photo contest, to take a picture of some star cluster 45 million light-years away, to stay up all night trying to track it with his telescope, then spend hours on his laptop, filtering the noise and dust, layering images and creating a composite and exposing the glowing gasses that paint plumes of red, blue and green across the black sky. O'Neill says, "I'm always in awe."
He had never looked up much, never been able to spot constellations or pick out planets. But on a dark night 17 years ago, while he was driving west on 102nd Avenue in Seminole, O'Neill watched a brilliant white sphere arc above the horizon. He had no idea what it was, had never heard of the Hale-Bopp comet.
"It just grabbed me," he says. "It was so bright and huge and magnificent I just wanted to zoom in on it and get as close as I could."
He told his wife he was buying a telescope. She said no. Okay, he announced, then I'm getting a motorcycle.
Since then, he has had 20 telescopes, each more expensive — and bigger — than the last. "For astronomers," he says, "aperture is everything."
The one he carried to the Keys is a 12-inch pro-grade RC with a computerized mount. It weighs 65 pounds and takes up the whole backseat. Some scopes at the star party were so big that their owners had to climb a ladder to peer through the eyepiece.
"I got into this hobby at just the right time, just as the technology was starting to take off," O'Neill says. "With all the new equipment, amateurs are starting to be able to see things in the deep sky that only scientists could see with the Hubble before."
And he started studying the sky in an ideal location, he says. Florida has many vantage points for stargazing, from Brooksville to Withlacoochee, to an entire community of astronomers who migrated to the dark mecca of Chiefland.
Three factors, he says, make Camp Wesumkee in the Keys the perfect place for astrophotography: Lack of light pollution. Distance from the jet stream, which disrupts the air. And being surrounded by water, which helps stabilize air currents. "Stars don't twinkle," O'Neill says. "Distortions in the atmosphere make it look like they do. But to take a really clear photograph, you can't have that."
For six nights, the sky above the Keys was clear — 180 degrees of black space stretching above startlingly still water.
O'Neill was able to capture the dancing stars, the streamers of stardust. His photo of the crescent-shaped constellations that look like the horns of Thor's Helmet garnered third place out of 55 entries in the contest.
The reflection nebula eluded him on Thursday, the only cloudy night. But he saw other things he had never imagined. "Which is always the best part," he says.
The nebula Eta Carinae, which is exploding with the power of 20 suns. The super giant Betelgeuse, whose mass is five times bigger than the sun. The "pillars of creation" — swirls of hot gas, surrounding towers of stars.
He has watched stars being born. He has studied celestial objects that are so far away they might already be long gone.
"I always wonder, is it still out there?" he asks. "Or am I just now seeing the light?"
He prints his best photographs, frames them, and hangs them in his home.
When he studies the sky, he says, when he sees the beauty of nebulas and constellations and exploding stars stretching to infinity, he knows they're not there because of science or chance.
"It shows me there has to be a creator," says O'Neill, who was raised Catholic and now goes to his wife's Baptist church. "We know there was a beginning: the Big Bang. That's Genesis. And there will be an end. The universe is rapidly expanding; one day everything will separate so far it will all go dark."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.