Stargazing at Paynes Prairie

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By Elizabeth Putfark

 

On January 23, over 1,600 Alachua residents found evening entertainment by looking to the skies – those over Paynes Prairie Preserve, to be exact.

The Alachua Astronomy Society partnered with the state park for its annual community stargazing event. Warmed by a bonfire, toasty s’mores and plenty of company, attendants had the opportunity to gaze on Northern Florida’s celestial showcase under the informed guidance of our county’s Astronomy experts. 

“Florida is a good stable scene where planetary details are often visible,” explains J. Andreas “Andy” Howell, Alachua Astronomy Society president. “Transparency wise, we’re low altitude, so we do have a lot of atmosphere to look through,” he admits. “The best observing season is during winter and spring.”

This year, stargazers were looking for Comet Lovejoy, a long-period comet first recognized in 2011 by Terry Lovejoy, an Australian amateur astronomer. The area’s usual January host of planets and constellations were also in sight, including Venus, Jupiter, the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy. The large crowds at the annual stargazing, the society’s largest event of the year by far, made telescopes a little harder to come by than usual – about half of the visitors who come out each year make their way forward to look through the DSC_3498telescopes. The rest are contented to listen to music, provided this year by Michael Vickey, Florida dulcimer champion, take a hayride with the
Park Rangers, or simply sit back on their blankets and chairs and gaze up at the stars.

Spring is the busiest time of year for the Alachua Astronomy Society, which holds numerous school events for students and parents throughout the academic year. “The kids enjoy looking through the DSC_3466telescopes,” Howell explains. “For many it’s the first time they’ve seen Jupiter, Saturn – the Galaxy!”

The Alachua Astronomy Society is a nonprofit group with around 125 members. “We’re all involved because first, we love astronomy, and second, we love working with other people, schools, and public outreach,” Howell explains. Based on the unprecedented attendance at this year’s event – over double last year’s crowd – their love is contagious.
More information on upcoming stargazing events, visit www.alachuaastronomyclub.org. Their
website also offers tips for new astronomers and resources for anyone hoping to catch the best nighttime views throughout the year

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