Heavenly bodiesYEONGWOL, Gangwon ― I’m staring at three tiny satellite lumps next to Jupiter. These, a guide tells me, are the “Galilean moons,” 700 million kilometers (450 million miles) away from Earth.
Europa, Callisto and Ganymede are three of the four large Jovian satellites that Galileo first spied through his telescope in 1610. As I watched last weekend, Io, with a brightly colored volcanic body in the center, was out of view, tucked behind Jupiter.
The distance from the Galilean moons to Earth is the equivalent to 700,000 round trips from Seoul to Busan. Jupiter and Europa alone are approximately 4.2 million kilometers apart. More surprisingly, I was told that the images you see in the sky are the radiating remains of the moons, which actually moved away eight minutes ago from the place ― it takes light that long to travel from Jupiter to Earth.
Only when I came to the Byeolmaru Observatory, at the peak of Mount Bongnae in Yeongwol county, did I learn to grasp an entirely different understanding of time and space. Welcome to the world of astronomy! If it wasn’t for the beauty of stars, I’d have packed my bags and gone paragliding instead ― a takeoff ramp is only a few meters from the observatory.
Byeolmaro, located 800 meters (2,640 feet) above sea level and surrounded by forest, is the only public observatory in Korea where a person can clearly see the Milky Way during a summer night. The name, Byeolmaro, means “star on a ridge.”
Within the eight-meter-high retractable dome are a planetarium, 16 freestanding telescopes with various lens sizes and a large reflecting telescope with a diameter of 800 millimeters. That’s big enough to see an object about 130,000 times better than the human eye. Even the smaller telescopes are powerful enough to invade the privacy of residents living a couple of kilometers away from the observatory.
The nighttime observation normally starts about 90 minute past sunset ― in the summertime, that’s from 7:30 to 8 p.m. The stars that appear between these hours and stay in the center of the skyline until midnight are the ones that astronomers refer to as the seasonal zodiac constellations.
Between now and mid-August, the most vivid constellations are Scorpio, Cygnus, Sagittarius and Hercules. Altair, one of the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle, can also be found to the southeast, part of the Aquila constellation.
According to a Korean legend, Altair and its two flanking stars were a prince, and the stars of nearby Lyra were his bride. They were banished to these separate places bordering the great river of the Milky Way by the bride’s father, a Taoist god. The couple was separated by the heavens, but on the seventh day of the seventh moon, Korean magpies were supposed to fly to the sky and, with their wings, form a long bridge so the two lovers could walk across to meet each other. During these unions the feet of the prince and his bride were said to wear off the feathers of the heads of some of these magpies. Folk lore states that Altair and Lyra, or Gyeonu and Jiknyeo in Korean, appear to meet in a secret rendezvous during the magpie molting season.
In and around some of these famous summer constellations is the Milky Way, which spans the entire skyline from north to south.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to see the Milky Way, or most of the summer constellations, due to the heavy fog that shrouded Mount Bongnae during the last two weeks of May.
During cloudy nights, Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, and the Galilean moons are the only visible celestial orbs. Even then, through the mighty Byeolmaro telescope, they are only about the size of a baby’s toenail ― a bit of a letdown if you’re accustomed to looking at the splashy images that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration publishes. But if you need to be reminded of scale, if Jupiter were the size of a baby’s toenail, it would be like looking at the toenail from halfway across Seoul.
That reminds me of the artist Paik Nam-june who once had a video installation titled the “Moon is the Oldest TV.” An arc of 13 television monitors each showed a phase of a lunar eclipse, vividly illustrating how digital inventions have replaced our ability to enjoy natural phenomena and altered our view of reality.
Hwang Gang-ho, an observatory technician, agreed, noting that young visitors today are less appreciative of what they see through the telescope than in the past because their visual standards are so used to the digitally enhanced modern world.
For most of history, however, humanity has stood in awe of the heavens, and the ancient Koreans were no different. Tracking the seasons, stars and eclipses was essential, and Koreans excelled, particularly in the early Joseon period.
By the 15th century, Korea was perhaps the most astronomically advanced nation in the world, and King Sejong promoted science and technology as the core of society. In 1442, the astronomer Yi Soon-jee combined traditional astronomy with newly discovered ideas from the Arab world to create the most accurate calendar of the era.
Since the weather wasn’t cooperating when I was at Byeolmaro, Lee Hwa-young ― another technician ― took some of us to the planetarium in the observatory’s basement. On its domed roof, I could see a miniature of the heavens as seen from Yeongwol. It looked like a sprinkling of diamonds on a black carpet ― beautiful, sure, but yet another digital enhancement of reality.
Mr. Lee adjusted the room lighting to show the Yeongwol sky on a clear night, and relocated the stars with a control key. While he made his presentation, some visitors fell asleep in the darkness, snoring softly.
The next morning I was taken to another telescope at the observatory, to watch the red flames of the sun. I could see them glowing, tiny bubbles forming and disappearing on its surface. This chemical reaction, called the “Dellinger phenomenon,” Mr. Hwang explained, is similar to “bubbles that form when red bean porridge simmers on a hot stove.”
The afternoon rays of the sun are sharp as a dagger, which is why every instrument in the observatory is strictly controlled by the staff ― a person could loose his eyesight if he attempted to peer through a telescope lens without a solar filter. To demonstrate, Mr. Hwang stuck a piece of wood under the lens. Within a second, the radiation had left a deep, round burn on the wood.
Around that time, the enormousness of all that I’d seen began to overwhelm me. I felt like all we believed about our way of life, all our means of control and order ― such as Newton’s theories, the mobile phone, the bank, drugs, the dictionary ― could prove irrelevant at any moment.
O.K., I may be exaggerating a bit. But the Yeongwol sky was fiercely vast, so vast that one can’t avoid feeling out of control at times.
Even Mr. Hwang admitted feeling the sublime nature of cosmic observation. “There have been many moments that I’ve felt helplessly small while watching the cosmos,” he said. “But whenever the scale has overwhelmed me, it has helped to know that I was looking into a creator’s territory.” He said that there aren’t many atheists among astronomers. “Nowadays, the only group of scientists who get into fierce debates with theologians seem to be the genetic engineers,” he said with a sigh.
Perhaps instinct and science aren’t opposing notions after all.
Star gazing around Korea
Byeolmaro Astronomical Observatory
Byeolmaro is the biggest and best-equipped public observatory in Korea. The place is packed with amateur astronomers and families on weekends. Accommodations are available on site for 10,000 won ($8.30) a night. Admission is 5,000 won for adults and 4,000 won for students. Surrounding Yeongwol county is popular for rafting and paragliding. Bring your own food if you’re planning to stay overnight. To get to Byeolmaro, take a train from Cheongnyangni Station in Seoul to Yeongwol, Gangwon province. From the station, you can either hike or take a taxi to Mount Bongnae Mountain. Telephone: (033) 374-7460
Jungmisan Astronomical Observatory
Located in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi province, Jungmisan is popular with group tours. It can accommodate up to 125 visitors at a time. The observatory recently purchased a 200-millimeter ED APO refractive telescope. Admission is 15,000 won. For a special program, the observatory offers an overnight package for 60,000 won, which includes accommodation, two meals, and forest bathing near the observatory. Take a train from Cheongnyangni Station to Yangpyeong. Telephone: (031) 771-0306
This was the first public observatory in Korea. The 254-millimeter refractory telescope contains the largest aperture in the country, and the red flame filter allows for observing our sun. Admission is 1,000 won for children under 12, and 2,000 won for adults. No accommodations are available at the site. Bus No. 162 and 181 will take you to the observatory entrance. The observatory is located opposite Hanhwa Research Institute in Daedeok Science Town at the north end of the city. Telephone: (042) 863-8763
If you don’t have time to leave Seoul, you can still try the Teco Observatory, located at the top of Teco System’s company headquarters, in Bulgwan-dong, near Mount Bukhan. The observatory is open to the public every second Thursday of the month. For group tours, call ahead. Telephone: (02) 353-0792
This observatory in the ancient town of Gyeongju isn’t exactly cutting edge ― in fact, it’s about 1,350 years old. The oldest astronomical observatory in Asia, Cheomseongdae is about a 15-minute walk from Gyeongju City Hall.
by Park Soo-mee