WEST SUMMERLAND KEY, Florida Keys — As many as 650 amateur and professional astronomers from around the world are to gather in the Florida Keys Monday through Saturday, Feb. 8-13, attracted by the chance for 180-degree viewing of the Southern Cross and other constellations during the 26th annual Winter Star Party.

The event’s primary draw for astronomers is the large number of southern constellations, comets, stars and other celestial objects that are visible from the Florida Keys — virtually the only place in the continental United States where they can be seen. The Keys’ southern location and relative absence of large-scale artificial lighting at night provide optimal viewing conditions.

The star party is to take place at Camp Wesumkee, a Girl Scout camp on West Summerland Key, mile marker 34.5 off U.S. Highway 1.

The gathering is hosted by Miami’s Southern Cross Astronomical Society. Founded in 1922, the SCAS is one of the oldest amateur astronomical societies in the Western Hemisphere.

As well as nightly stargazing opportunities, Winter Star Party participants can attend lectures and presentations by nationally recognized astronomers and guest speakers, shop for astronomy equipment from on-site vendors, participate in photo contests, compete for raffle prizes and exchange information with fellow astronomy aficionados. Special camp activities are arranged for young astronomers.

Expected highlights of the 2010 Winter Star Party include a presentation by Dr. Russell Romanella, director of the International Space Station and Spacecraft Processing Directorate at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center.

Featured speakers include astrophysicist, author and musician Dr. Fiorella Terenzi, astro-photographer and event director Tim Khan, telescope maker and astro-photographer Sheldon Faworski, solar system research and planetary photography specialist Dr. Donald C. Parker and star party founder Tippy D’Auria, an international lecturer and astro-photographer.

While the Winter Star Party is open to the public as well as SCAS members, the 2010 event is sold out.

For more information, visit the SCAS Web site at www.scas.org.

For accommodations information in the Lower Florida Keys, call the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce at 305-872-2411 or 800-872-3722. Accommodations information also is available on the Keys Web site at www.fla-keys.com.