Early Autumn Stargazing

(Southern Hemisphere Version)

A couple of years ago I spent 17 days on a cruise ship as an astronomy lecturer. The itinerary was a trip around South America, beginning in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil and ending up in Valparaiso, Chile. My job was to teach people how to find things in the sky and give a handful of lectures about astronomy during the course of the trip. We left on March 15 and returned on April 2, early autumn for southern hemisphere stargazers.

I had been to S. America once before, so I had some inkling of where things were in the skies, but this would be the first time I’d have nearly unfettered access to dark skies for a long string of nights. So, I took along my handy traveling telescope (the AstroScan) and a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars. I had star charts for the passengers, and several stargazing guides to use as reference.

It turned out to be quite a fun trip (you can see pictures at our South American trip site). We had about 8 good nights of stargazing, and out at sea, there was just NO light pollution from cities. In fact, aside from a few lights at the back of the ship, and the appearance of the southern aurora borealis as a white glow to the south, we enjoyed the darkest, clearest skies we’d seen in our lives.

On the clear nights, we’d set up the scope on the top deck of the ship and do our observing. Most nights we’d get a few stargazers with us, and on three nights we had well in excess of 100 folks out there, craning their heads upward to enjoy the southern Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic clouds, and other delights. And people had such interesting questions. I think the most-asked was “Where’s the Southern Cross?”

The most thought-provoking came from an Israeli rabbi who was an avid observer and asked me what I thought the limits of infinity were. We tossed that one around for a while, up there on the wind-whipped top deck under the black velvet skies and glittering stars.

Stargazing will do that to you — just when you’ve found a globular cluster and are scoping it out through the eyepiece, some sense of the distances that light travels from these objects hits you, and you marvel at the size of the universe. My favorite objects to look at in the southern skies during that trip were the myriads of clusters glittering along the path of the Milky Way, and the beauty of the Eta Carinae nebula, and the appearance of Mars, low on the horizon after dinner.

We hope to go again sometime, to spend more idyllic nights aboard ship watching the skies. Even more fun would be to meet up with South American amateur astronomers and do a bit of stargazing with them. Or, if we ever get a chance, going to Australia and observing from the outback. I hear it’s a whole ‘nother universe down there!

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