February 19, 2020

December 2013: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Of MAVENs and Dark Sky Adventures

Contemplating the universe from Westgate River Ranch.

(All photos by author).

Florida isn’t the first place most people think of when it comes to astronomy. As part of the southern tip of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, the Sunshine State has two big strikes against it when it comes to deep sky observing; light pollution and moisture. Even on the clearest of nights, we can expect dew to begin collecting on every surface and start to run in rivulets down the side of our telescope tube shortly after placing it out under the often turbulent sky.

But Florida does have a few bonuses going for it to entice the space enthusiast. One is launches. How many Americans have seen a spaceshot, in person? We routinely witness a few night launches a year, right from our backyard north of the Tampa Bay area at about 100 miles to the west of the Cape Canveral launch pad. We even once managed to show off a launch during a school star party, a happy convergence of events that may never happen again.

We were excited last month to witness the launch of NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars. This was our 5th launch “up close,” and our scorecard now includes the launches of STS-125, STS-132, SpaceX’s CRS-2 mission, and the Mars Science Laboratory in 2011. MAVEN was a flawless afternoon launch, though we soon lost her in the low cloud deck shortly after liftoff. And there were thousands of viewers out on the causeway for this one. Perhaps word is finally getting around that NASA is still open for business!

Launch of MAVEN!

MAVEN is one of two spacecraft, along with India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, that’s making the once every two year passage to the Red Planet. MAVEN is also the first interplanetary mission break the surly bonds since MSL in 2011, as missions beyond Earth orbit become fewer and farther between.

Closer to home, we also got to mount a minor expedition of our own. After Comet ISON failed to dazzle, we retired to a pre-selected site to recharge our astronomical batteries. As we mentioned previous, dark sky sites are hard to come by, but we’d like to happily report that the Westgate River Ranch located near Lake Wales, Florida fit the bill. Rodeo, airboat rides and skeet shooting were the order of the day, while dark skies were only steps away from the security lighting at night. Located within the Kissimmee River State Park and near the U.S. Air Force’s Avon Bombing range, this thin sliver of land is guaranteed to be dark for years to come. We gauged the sky to be right around Bortle scale 3, with a brilliant star dappled Milky Way stretching right across the sky with only a tiny light dome noted from the town of Lake Whales to the north.

Venus as seen from Westgate River Ranch.

The remote “glamping” tent site offered darkness right on your doorstep, and the camp airstrip is accessible for setup with prior permission at night.  We would highly recommend adding a stay at Westgate to your Florida space itinerary… who says you can’t still find dark skies on the East Coast?



  1. [...] sky opportunities afforded by the Florida Keys. We’d easily put them up against Chiefland and Lake Wales as some of the darkest skies in Florida. And speaking of darkness, be sure to check out the bar at [...]

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