The jewels of the night skyFor city dwellers, electric lights eclipsed the stars a long time ago. In Seoul, there are usually fewer than 10 stars visible with the naked eye on a given night. Nowadays, it seems old-fashioned to tell a loved one that her eyes are like the stars.
But the stars are still there, and outside the cities, they still shine. For an even clearer view, you can visit one of Korea’s observatories, many of which offer lodging for overnight stays. With winter here ― the best season for stargazing ― now’s a good time to get reacquainted with the night sky.
About 1,500 stars are visible on winter nights, fewer than in the summertime. But because the winter sky is clearer and the atmosphere more stable, there are more nights when stars can be clearly seen. Also, brighter stars like Betelgeuse and Sirius are more visible.
The problems with winter stargazing are cold weather and “light pollution.” You have to drive hours from the lights of the cities to get a full look at the stars, but sleeping outdoors is a problem in the winter.
Fortunately, a number of observatories in Korea have lodging facilities.
One new private observatory, Star Palace, on Anmyeon Island off South Chungcheong province, was actually built within a hotel. It has a 152-millimeter (6-inch) refractive telescope, which is unusually powerful for a private observatory.
The owner of Star Palace is a science teacher, Kim Jong-hak, who teaches at Buseok High School in Seosan County in South Chungcheong province. Mr. Kim got his first telescope 18 years ago, when the reappearance of Halley’s comet sparked wider interest in astronomy; this summer, he realized his dream of opening an observatory. Unlike some amateur astronomers, Mr. Kim likes to share the view.
After the observatory was built, three classes from the high school took a field trip to see it. More recently, all 13 pupils in the sixth year of Samseong Primary School were invited to the observatory to enjoy its views.
All guests at the hotel are required to take a peek through the telescope and listen to Mr. Kim's one-hour lecture, which starts at 9:30 p.m.
The lights are turned off to encourage guests to do some stargazing. Afterwards, they can turn in for the night, in rooms with names like Jupiter, Apollo and Andromeda.
‘Start with the nearest moon’
“There are steps to be taken in watching the stars,” Mr. Kim says. “Start with the nearest moon, and then move deeper into seasonally observable planets, star clusters and nebulae.”
With the telescope pointed at the moon, its light was blinding, and its craters were clearly visible. Next came Saturn, which can be observed from the early evening. At low magnification, only a slightly tilted, oval-shaped bright spot with two black dots could be seen, but once magnification was increased, Saturn’s rings became distinguishable.
Beyond the solar system, the double cluster in Perseus and the Pleiades Cluster appeared, followed by Andromeda. But the views of the clusters and the Milky Way were rather disappointing. Only a single luminous dot stood out among red and blue clouds.
“A camera may capture such an image after a long exposure, but it cannot be observed with the eyes,” Mr. Kim said.
Later, we looked at the constellations without using a telescope. Though the moon was bright, Orion, Taurus, Auriga and the Great Dog were clear, as were Cassiopeia and Ursa Major. As Mr. Kim discussed the folklore associated with the constellations, the sky seemed to get darker. I retired to the Orion room, which was very warm.
To get to Star Palace, take Seohaean Freeway (the west coast freeway) and exit at Hongseong Interchange. Head toward Anmyeon Island for 20 minutes; at the Woncheong three-way intersection, take a left toward the island. Fifty meters along, there is an alley leading to Mageompo Beach; drive one kilometer further and take a left in front of Samseong Primary School.
Admission to the observatory is free for hotel guests. The rate for a double room is 80,000 won ($77) during the off-season. Mageompo Beach is 400 meters away from the observatory. For more information, call (041) 675-3666.
Where to go for a much closer look at Orion, Cassiopeia and friends
The nation’s best observatories, at Mount Bohyun and Mount Sobaek, are not open to the public. But a number of municipal and private observatories have good facilities and programs. The following observatories are available for family visits.
Jungmisan, Gyeonggi province
This observatory’s location between Mount Jungmi and Mount Yumyeong shields it from some of the city’s light pollution. Its main telescope is a 202-millimeter refractive telescope. Though there is no projection system for reflecting astronomical images, a simulation program imported from the United States makes up for it.
Lodging is available for groups of 20 or more. Visitors can watch the stars and listen to a two-hour lecture on the constellations; this program starts at 9:30 p.m. every night. The cost is 15,000 won ($14). For more information, call (031) 771-0306.
Cosmopia, Gapyeong, Gyeonggi province
This observatory, located on Mount Myeongji, has a good vantage point and lodging for families. The main telescope is a 400-millimeter Cassegrain telescope, which combines aspects of reflector and refractor telescopes. The observatory is open for observation and lectures from 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. A two-day, one-night stay, including meals, costs 60,000 won for adults and 50,000 won for students. For more information, call (031) 585-0482.
Byulmaro Astronomy Observatory, Youngweol, Gangwon province
The observatory is located at the top of Mount Bongrae, 800 meters (2,624 feet) above sea level. The main telescope is an 800-millimeter reflector telescope; there are 15 secondary telescopes as well. Observation and lectures are available from 2 to 10 p.m. daily, except Mondays and the day after any national holiday. No lodging is available. Admission is 5,000 won for adults and 4,000 won for adolescents. Call (033) 374-7460.
This was the first Korean observatory opened to the public. The main telescope is a 250-millimeter refractive telescope, the biggest in Korea. There are also 13 secondary telescopes. It’s open from 2 to 10 p.m. daily, except Mondays and the day after any holiday. Admission is free. Call (042) 863-8763.
by Choi Hyeon-chul