Party beneath the stars

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By Mark Scohier

The light pouring in from the dome’s rectangular opening made silhouettes out of John Novak and the large telescope he built some years back.
“It gathers a huge amount of photons at an accelerated speed,” he explained, staring at his complex assemblage of mirrors, wires and metal parts painted gold and red. “It’s similar to the imager used on the Hubble (Space Telescope).”
Determined to back up his claims, Novak, a mechanical contractor from Brooksville, stepped down from the platform where the scope was mounted and made his way to an adjoining room full of computer monitors and hardware—Novak’s control room.
A minute and several mouse clicks later, one of the monitors was awash in a rose tinted scene of stars and cosmic gas formations about 7000 light years away.
“Those are the Pillars of Creation,” Novak said.  “That’s the same shot the Hubble got.”
But the image on his screen, a portion of what astronomers call the Eagle Nebula, was not from the Hubble Space Telescope.  It was a photo he captured last summer from his personal observatory a few miles outside of Chiefland, an area of Florida he said is unique for its dark skies.  Novak’s observatory also contains the largest privately owned equatorial telescope in the southeast, a seven-ton giant perched on a circular platform outside the observatory.
But Novak isn’t the only one wanting a pristine view of heavenly bodies. Monday, amateur astronomers from all over the country began pouring in to take part in the third annual Chiefland Fall Star Party, situated on a 20-acre field near the Chiefland Astronomy Village.
From a window of Novak’s observatory, located at the village, hordes of pocket-protector-wearing stargazers could be seen pitching tents and fiddling with laptops and the knobs of telescopes.  Novak, one of the organizers, said he was expecting about 175 participants to show up to this year’s event, which runs until Sunday.
John Paul, a retired engineer from Vero Beach taking part in the event for the second year in a row, said, “It’s a very dark-sky area. Most people who come up hear are from the cities.  Chiefland’s a good area.”
Paul, who’s been into astronomy since the age of 12, said he would be spending the next several nights imaging deep-sky nebulas, a process that involves taking and combining a series of images over a length of time to get one finely detailed picture.
John O’Neil, an amateur astronomer and committee member of the Fall Star Party, said some of the world’s best imagers come to Chiefland to take advantage of the skies.
“There are star parties all over the country…this has become the favorite place for imaging.”
Chiefland skies are great, he said, because there’s little light pollution and, because it’s in Florida, it happens to be situated between two bodies of water, which put a lot of moisture in the air.  The moisture helps reduce the distortion that’s seen when looking through a telescope, he said.
But despite the world-class skies, Novak said attendance is down this year, something he attributed to a bad economy.  Last year’s event drew about 375 people.
“The economy is killing us this year.”
But even though it’s hurt attendance, Novak said the out-of-towners that show up end up contributing to the local economy.  He said he’s hopeful that as things turn around, and more people attend, the event will serve as an economic boost to the area.  The site where the event is held can accommodate between 600 and 700 people, he said.
Carol McQueen, executive director of the Levy County Visitors Bureau, said any event that draws people to Levy County is good for the economy.
“Hopefully, they’re staying in some of the local hotels.  They’re buying food, eating in the restaurants and buying gasoline.”
McQueen said that the event is especially helpful because it occurs “during the down months.”  Tourism tends to slow down after Labor Day, she said.
She said it’s hard to quantify how much events like the Fall Star Party contribute to the economy, but added that the event falls into the category of tourism that Levy County is best known for: nature-based tourism.
Cedar Key, area springs, rivers, parks and a plethora of nature trails are the county’s biggest attractions, she said.  The Fall Star Party is just one more thing to add to the list.
For more information about the Chiefland Fall Star Party, check out their website at www.fallstarparty.com.