Astronomical Travel

Most of the time astronomy is not a hobby that requires extensive travel. All that is usually required is a clear sky and the curiosity to actually look up into the heavens where wonders abound. Perhaps a little attention to the patterns one sees is helpful as well. The moon passes through its phases, and any given phase of the moon will rise and set at the same time of day. The same stars appear in the midnight sky at the same time of year for any given location. The planets go through their own cycles of appearance and disappearance too, although their patterns are more complex.

It’s true that your location makes a difference in what you see. Traveling to the southern hemisphere can be disorienting for someone who has spent his life north of the equator. When you face toward the sun, it moves from right to left during the day instead of from left to right! Orion is upside down! But the glorious objects that are visible only from these latitudes more than make up for the temporary confusion. Our nearest stellar neighbor Alpha Centauri is easy to pick out next to Omega Centauri, a huge globular cluster that puts the northern hemisphere’s M13 to shame.  The Magellanic Clouds, small galactic companions to our Milky Way, grace the skies. And the center of the Milky Way itself is overhead in the summer, surrounded by numerous star clusters and nebulae visible even to the naked eye.

You do have to travel to a very specific location to see a total solar eclipse. These occur at very specific (and predictable) times and in very specific (and equally predictable) places. The path of the August 2017 eclipse for which those of us in the United States will NOT have to travel far is here.

In 2009 my wife and I were fortunate enough to see a total solar eclipse from the southern hemisphere. I figured that if the eclipse itself was clouded out, we would still have a wonderful vacation! As it happened, the eclipse was visible all through totality. I have never witnessed any natural spectacle more awe-inspiring. I’ve since been amused by those who laugh at the fear these events inspired in ancient people who did not know they were coming. Our ship full of astronomy enthusiasts who were aboard precisely because we DID know it was coming was reduced to a pack of gibbering idiots. You would have thought we had our champagne before the event, not after. My wife took a picture that was actually featured on the web page of Astronomy Magazine.

Unless you live at a considerably higher latitude than I would ever consider as a permanent home, you also have to travel to see the northern lights in their full glory. My wife and I intend to do that next April. We will travel to Iceland, where our chances are very good (but not 100%) of seeing a spectacular display. Even if we do not, this is also an interesting place to be, especially for someone interested in geology. Iceland sits atop the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the earth is pulling apart, and is aptly called the land of fire and ice. I’ll have more to say about the phenomenon of aurorae as the time approaches. In the meantime, enjoy this gorgeous video from Finland for a taste of what we hope to see!

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