The stars at night are big and bright, deep in . . . New Zealand?

Editor’s note: This blog is one of a series of travelogues by HMNS VP of Astronomy Carolyn Sumners, sent from the two-week solar eclipse viewing trip she led to the South Pacific. Astrophotography by Gary Young.

The stars of the southern hemisphere are fantastic, with the brilliant Milky Way stretching from near the hunter, Orion, in the North to Crux, the Southern Cross, in the South.

This predawn image is a time exposure with a Canon Mark II camera and a fisheye lens, taken from our hotel lawn in Queenstown, New Zealand, looking out over Lake Wakatipu. Even with some glare from the hotel and from Queenstown to the East, the predawn sky is remarkably dark. This exposure approximates what we could see as we faced south.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersNew Zealand has a total population less than 5 million, which guarantees much less light pollution, even close to a city. Also, the southern Milky Way is much richer and more easily seen than the Milky Way near the North Star.  In New Zealand, we trade views of the Big and Little Bears for the Southern Cross and the nebulae around it. This image is a close-up of the southern Milky Way in the early evening as we started stargazing. Notice the dark areas in the Milky Way. The Inca saw animals in these dark dust clouds.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn SumnersWhile observing through two telescopes, we placed our third telescope, a Takahashi FS60Q, on a small portable Sky Patrol equatorial mount that would track the stars — adjusting for the Earth’s rotation. We were able to do time exposures of up to a minute without guidance and we captured incredible views of the Orion Nebula, the Omega Centauri globular cluster, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds and the Carina Nebula.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Large and Small Magellanic Clouds

Through a telescope we saw the shapes of these clouds and clusters, but not the rich colors and textures captured in these images. The Orion Nebula is a stellar birth cloud with new stars still forming from the gas and dust. The Carina region has young stars and the dying supergiant Eta Carinae.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Eta Carinae nebula

Omega Centauri is the brightest globular cluster in Earth skies with 5 million stars. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy. We can see the Orion Nebula easily from Houston. The other magnificent objects are best seen from below Earth’s equator.

Examining the stars from southern Australia with Dr. Carolyn Sumners
Orion Nebula

It’s a wonderful sky down under.

What’s the over you’ll make it Down Under? Final chance to book a trip to Aussieland for a rare eclipse

It’s your final chance to get in on the trip of a lifetime (or at least the next several years) to Australia and New Zealand.

Cairns, AustraliaThe only total solar eclipse of the year is viewable on land only from the northeastern coast of Australia. The Museum has secured hotel space in Cairns for the rare eclipse and planned a trip around the voyage with an optional extension to Fiji.

Led by Dr. Carolyn Sumners, HMNS’ VP of Astronomy, the two-week tour of the South Pacific includes Cairns and Sydney, Australia as well as Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand and an ideal eclipse viewing spot on the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef.

What: South Pacific Wonders and Solar Eclipse
When: Nov. 10 through Nov. 24
Where: The other side of the world

For more information on booking, email travel@hmns.org or call 713.639.4737. Click here for full itinerary and pricing.

Girls just wanna have sun: Confessions of a compulsive solar eclipse chaser

As a veteran eclipse chaser, I’ve seen eight solar eclipses in trips that have taken me around the world.

Why travel to the ends of the Earth for an event lasting only a few minutes, you ask? Astronomical objects lie far away and change very little from night to night or even from year to year. It’s true it’s always the same moon, same planets, same star clusters, nebulas and galaxies — all looking a bit fuzzy and tiny, even through a telescope. But a total solar eclipse is totally different; suddenly, astronomy becomes incredibly exciting and everything happens fast.

groupeclipse
Dr. Carolyn Sumners (bottom) photographing the HMNS group at the 2009 Total Solar Eclipse in China with fish-eye lens camera.

In a total solar eclipse the moon creeps in front of the sun, and then all at once covers the sun’s photosphere, plunging a tiny part of the Earth into darkness. Those lucky enough to be in this shadow see coronal streamers surrounding the black moon disk — like a glowing crown with red arcs of ionized gas dancing from behind the moon. Suddenly, there’s too much to see and it’s all happening way too fast.

Just as quickly as the darkness comes, daylight returns. As the moon moves past, light from the sun’s photosphere peeks through mountain ranges along the moon’s edge. Called Bailey’s Beads, these tiny flickering lights appear for just an instant before the famous “diamond ring,” when the first bit of the sun’s photosphere is visible once again. Then the protective glasses go on and the sun (with a piece still hidden by the moon) returns the world to daylight.

The Maya worried that the sun would not return after an eclipse, signaling the end of the world — an appropriate thought for an eclipse in the year 2012.

Total solar eclipses are special because they are so rare. The total solar eclipse occurring this Nov. 14 is the only one in 2012, and the only one in an accessible location until 2017. To see a total eclipse, you must usually become a world traveler, and this year is no exception. This eclipse occurs mostly over water at a time when equatorial oceans are largely cloud-covered.

The best viewing is along a strip of the Great Barrier Reef coast around the city of Cairns, Australia on Nov. 14, 2012, an hour after sunrise. And once again, that’s where I’ll be.

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HMNS Trip to View the 2012 Solar Eclipse in Australia: November 10-24, 2012

HMNS has included the 2012 total solar eclipse experience viewed from the coast of Australia near the Great Barrier Reef as part of a two-week tour of the South Pacific that includes Cairns and Sydney, Australia; and Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand, with an optional extension to Fiji.

There is an early registration discount of $250 per person for those registered for the trip by May 15! Pricing is $5,699 per person double occupancy with international air and 20 meals, or $3,449 per person double occupancy land-only package, with single and triple room packages available.

Click here for itinerary and registration information.

Travel Night – Australia: Monday, May 14, 6 p.m.

For interested travelers and those already registered, this evening allows you to meet trip leader Dr. Carolyn Sumners, who will provide an eclipse viewing overview, and see a slideshow of the trip itinerary. Our travel agents will be there to answer all questions about the trip.