Observing Information for Astronomers in The Villages
Astronomy in The Villages can be challenging. Our members often ask about places to observe, nearby dark sites, and ways to deal with the problems specific to observing in The Villages.
The following provides some information to assist our observers, in addition to what can be gained by attending our meetings and talking to our active observers. In that vein, I recommend that observers come to our Telescope Workshop meeting. There, you can talk to other observers in The Villages and get more personal recommendations for observation as well as information about tools and techniques that can help you.
Observing from Home
The most common observing site used by our members is their own homesite. Whether the back yard, a side yard, or the driveway, they find a place where they can safely set up their equipment to observe the sky. Usually, there are limitations. The large number of streetlights, house lights, and porch lights can cause problems that exclude areas of the sky from being observed.
Observers should learn how to turn off their own house lamp (it's a breaker on the electrical panel, but electricians or installers from house sign companies can install a switch to allow it to be turned off.) They should also discuss lighting with their neighbors. However, in many cases the lights just have to be lived with when observing from home.
In cases where they prevent observation, sites away from home become desirable.
Recreation center outdoor areas are available for observation, particularly around the picnic pavilion. Be safe when setting up, do not set up in walkways or driveways even after hours. Be mindful of other users of the rec center, even if you don't see any when you're usually observing. For example, don't set up where you would interfere with the use of outdoor exercise equipment. Picnic pavilions do not require a reservation after dusk, and there is usually a clear grassy area nearby.
Many recreation centers have a nice area to set up to view at least part of the sky. Most have areas where there is a lot of light, however, and most have lots of trees that also block views of the sky. Some have spots where the features of the rec center create a dark area shielded from nearby lights, with a view of a large area of sky. An example of this is the SeaBreeze Rec Center, which has a dark area behind its tennis courts along the walking path. That area has a good view to the south and west, with the parking lot lights blocked by the tennis court fences.
Truman Rec Center
Truman Recreation Center is currently the club's favored site for nighttime observing within The Villages. This is the site used for our Telescope Workshops, as well as some of our Starry Starry Night programs. The grassy area near the picnic pavilion is away from the worst of the local lights, and gives good views to the north, east, and south. Views to the west have a high horizon caused by the local buildings and plantings, as well as the lights of the rec center and its pool.
Homestead Rec Center
Despite this being the home of The Villages' Astronomy Park, we have not found it a practical place for observation. However, if you wish to try observing from the Astronomy Park, here is what you need to know.
Normally, the gate to the Astronomy Park area will be locked at around dusk. You can request to have it kept open until 10pm, however. Submit your request to the front desk of the rec center. They also have a small telescope available for loan during your observations. Keeping the site open requires that Recreation staff be on site, so it can't be kept open after 10pm without a special request submitted to Recreation at least a week ahead of your planned date (similar to requesting the site for an event.)
The site itself has several concrete pads with power provided. Unfortunately, these abut on the preserve land that surrounds the park, and the tall trees there. These pads each have a very limited view of the sky. Only one will allow for visual alignment of the telescope's mount with the north pole.
The preserve land also brings with it lots of mosquitos and wildlife. The mosquitos can be numerous enough to threaten the health of anyone on the site, even after full dark. The wildlife that is unused to the presence of humans should be considered as well. Always observe with somebody else, preferably in a group.
The site also contains other hazards. The cornhole toss games lie between the observing site and the gate and they area a serious tripping hazard in the dark. Stay on the walkways, circuitous as they are, and do not cross the open field area when traversing the park. The distance from the parking area outside the gate to the observing pads is long, and includes a significant slope. It is challenging to anyone with mobility impairment, but it is also a hazard to anyone who is hauling equipment that is either heavy or bulky in and out of the park.
For these and other reasons, the Astronomy Club no longer uses this site as a nighttime observing location. If it is close to your home, you may be able to develop a routine that makes it acceptable to you in spite of its problems.
Outside The Villages
We join the Fruitland Park Astronomy Group for their monthly meetings at Cales Memorial Field in Fruitland Park. These are scheduled events, during which the City of Fruitland Park opens the gate to the soccer fields and their parking. Otherwise, the park area is either inaccessible or in use for another purpose.
The Gardenia Park Recreation Complex remains open at night. However, it is unlikely to be a better place for observation than a decent rec center in The Villages.
Chiefland Astronomy Village
Chiefland Astronomy Village is a dark-sky development that is approximately 90 minutes drive from The Villages. They have an observing field area where they hold a dark sky observing event on the New Moon weekends of each month. Several of our members attend these events to enjoy some of the darkest skies in Florida.
For more information, see: https://chieflandastro.com/