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Festival looks to the stars in Keys

There are spectacular sunrises and sunsets in Florida and the skies can be breathtakingly beautiful during the day.

And, if that's not enough, the sky also offers plenty of treats after the sun goes down.

The nighttime heavenly show will be featured at the 28th Annual Winter Star Party, an event that attracts as many as 600 amateur and professional astronomers from around the world to the Lower Florida Keys from Feb. 20-26. The big draw is an opportunity for a 180-degree viewing of the Southern Cross and other constellations.

The Southern Cross, comets, stars and other celestial objects are especially visible in the Keys, with its extreme southern location and the relative lack of artificial lighting at night. The star party unfolds at Camp Wesumkee, a Girl Scout camp at Mile Marker 34.5, off U.S. Highway 1 on Scout Key (formerly West Summerland Key).

The event is hosted by Miami's Southern Cross Astronomical Society. Founded in 1922, it's one of the oldest amateur astronomical societies in the Western Hemisphere. Starting in 1960, the Society became a fixture at the Miami Museum of Science, where its members introduced visitors to astronomy through weekly classes that continued until the organization moved to Florida International University in 1986.

The Winter Star Party also includes presentations by nationally recognized astronomers and guest speakers, the opportunity to buy astronomy equipment from on-site vendors, photo contests, prizes and opportunities for networking with other astronomy aficionados. There are camp activities for young astronomers.

Featured speakers include award-winning author and astronomer Stephen James O'Meara, whose books include the "Deep-Sky Companion" series; astronomer and telescope maker Mike Lockwood; astro-photographer and event director Tim Khan; solar system research and planetary photography specialist Dr. Donald C. Parker; and Star Party founder Tippy D'Auria.

D'Auria's was honored by the International Astronomical Union, which named an asteroid — "11378 DAuria" — in his honor. He's a volcano hunter, too.

The Winter Star Party is open to the public, though advance registration is required. There will be no tickets on sale at the gate. Visit scas.org for registration and more information.

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