Florida's star power is astronomical

Star sightings may be a more common occurrence in Hollywood, Calif., but in Hollywood, Fla., the South Florida Astronomers Society Association and the Fox Observatory make seeing real stars more likely, and much more fun.

But Florida's star power doesn't stop there. The Sunshine State boasts astronomical societies and observatories from Pensacola to Key West, and from the Atlantic to the Gulf. They offer a cast of hundreds, even thousands, of stars, clusters, planets and galaxies that take center stage for a romantic evening, a family outing or an educational observance.

Staring up into the Florida night sky, stargazers are privy to stellar happenings that rival today's action movies with explosions millions of light-years old and moonscape craters and peaks that include such names as "The Terminator." High-powered telescopes and binoculars make the proverbial "close-up" a reality, resulting in chorus after chorus of heart-felt oohs and aahs.

From the Escambia Astronomical Society in Pensacola to the Everglades Astronomical Society based in Naples, Florida astronomical societies offer everything from sidewalk astronomy to deep-sky viewing from both planetariums and natural viewing sites.

"We've come out to see the stars for years," said Robert Hoffman, a visitor who, along with wife Robin, was attending the Pensacola Beach Songwriter's Festival. "It's a perfect evening to see the stars and a great way to spend an evening."

Such Pensacola Beach stargazing events are spearheaded by Dr. Wayne Wooten, chief astronomy professor at Pensacola State College, who credits technological advances with changing the face of stargazing.

"Technology has made significant contributions to amateur astronomy. The 40,000 database objects in the sky as a part of our telescopes' base is phenomenal," Wooten said.

Wooten's Pensacola State College colleagues Rich Johnston, Perry Vath and George Odesma arrived at the event with a variety of high-powered telescopes and star maps. They trained the telescopes on the moon, stars and planets, while visitors and locals alike excitedly pressed eyes to viewfinders.

Wooten grabbed green lasers and pointed to the darkening beach sky. He tracked the rise of planets and the expanse of sky holding zodiacal constellations. He spoke of magnetic fields, distinct spots on the setting beach sun and "Vega," the first star visible in the dusk sky. He pointed out the Teapot of Sagittarius and various globular star clusters, signaling that a show-stopping spectacle was in the making. But the real crowd-pleasers of the evening were "Tycho," an impact crater on the dark side of the moon, and the poles of the nearly full moon.

"Oh, I see it. I got it," echoed as spectators found Uranus and the North Pole – of the moon, that is.

Martha and Tom Turner, local star lovers, brought their own tools for enjoying the Pensacola Beach evening. They offered the Skywalk application, an interactive astronomy guide that maps the sky in real time showing stars, constellations, planets and satellites. The Turners held their tablet to the sky, turning and twisting.

"It's awesome to be out here," said Martha Turner with tablet in hand. "It's a beautiful evening – the breeze, the waves, the stars. The people are so friendly and knowledgeable. It's so much fun."

Tallahassee also held a recent viewing at the Cypress Boat Landing, far from the city lights. Ken Kopczynski, master astronomer and president of the Tallahassee Astronomical Society, pointed to Sagittarius, Capricornus, the Milky Way, nebula (galaxies beyond the Milky Way) and Mars, while owls hooted faintly in the distance.

Kopczynski grew up during the space age and witnessed the landing of man on the moon, which catapulted his keen interest to "must-know" status.

"A friend told me about the Miami Planetarium. He told me how great it was, so I went there. They had a telescope set on Saturn. I took one look and that was it," said Kopczynski. "Now, M57 (the Ring Nebula of Lyra), galaxies such as number 51, M-13 (and) M-11, and Lake Ella and Maclay State Gardens viewings are a part of my daily life."

Ed Valla, Kopczynski's colleague, said his favorite star viewing spot is Chiefland, about 125 miles northwest of Orlando.

"(Chiefland includes) 200 acres of old pastureland and some of the darkest areas of the state. It has been established as a community specifically for astronomers," Valla said.

Stargazing can even lead to more than watching stars. Denise Sabatini, a member of the Naples-based Everglades Astronomical Society said a friend asked her to go to an astronomy course at her local community college. "(That's) where I met my future husband," she said.

"About four or five years ago, a local radio station held a contest around Valentine's Day asking for stories about a romantic date," she added. "I submitted my stargazing story, telling how my husband and I used to observe the skies and listen to the wildlife. I was one of five winners."

Star parties are another opportunity for public viewing. The parties range from an evening to weeklong events. Often, other classic Florida vacation activities such as swimming, boating, fishing, sightseeing, entertainment, restaurants and shopping are part of the festivities, or offered nearby.

Outreach club programs also teach about the Florida skies. Members answer questions, give advice on telescopes and point out interesting objects in the night sky. The larger astronomy clubs offer event calendars and more information online.

Stargazing offers a year-round opportunity to share the wonders of the night sky, an event rated G... for Great.

This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.

Florida's star power is astronomical 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 7:41pm]

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