An astronomy festival for those lost in space
I was on the winding mountain road up to Gimhae Astronomical Observatory and struggling to make out where I was going in the dark ― there seemed to be just enough light to keep me from walking off the side of the mountain. Posted here and there were constellation maps for two-month cycles to give visitors some idea of what they were looking at, or at least hoped to see. Some of the people looked at the maps, up at the sky, back at the maps again, and back to the sky, trying to find Orion. After all, it’s Orion season, the time when the constellation is brightest.
Winter is the best time for stargazers, though it’s hard to notice when you live in a city jam-packed with neon signs and streetlights.
With the stars at their brightest and Orion flexing his muscles, the observatory in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang province, has been holding its “Orion Festival.” In truth, visitors are welcome any time of the year, and the festival is mainly the regular attractions plus a photo exhibit that ends on Feb. 5.
It takes about 20 minutes to reach the observatory, which is located 374 meters (1,277) above sea level. Walking up and up, the stars get clearer and shinier. It’s stunning to look up the sky searching for stars and then look down at all the lights of Gimhae city under your feet, as if one was a mirror of the other. When I got to the observatory, I was surprised to see so many people; it was so dark I had doubted the observatory was even open.
The observatory offers visitors a quick lesson in astronomy in its projector room, informing people about the constellations of the season and the myths about their creation. The program is heavy on animation and is obviously aimed at kids, but it’s still educational if you’re new to this kind of thing. Unfortunately, it’s all in Korean.
After learning what the constellations look like, it was time to scan the stars. I had to wait for about an hour in a long line outside the room before I could come in and jam my eyeball up against a telescope lens. Obviously, telescopes can’t show you everything that’s out there. Even the biggest star appeared to me to be about the size of a nail head.
In the first observatory room, I looked through a 200-millimeter (7.9-inch) refracting telescope to see about 350 stars circling around in double-star clusters. Although the stars were all about the size of a dot, it was amazing to see so many stars in one circle. “I think I counted to 100,” one boy said proudly.
The guide in the room said the stars are 12,000 light-years away from Earth. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a year.)
At the outside observatory, there are four telescopes through which one can see the Pleiades star cluster (the Seven Sisters) in the Taurus constellation, Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion and the planet Saturn. Saturn and Sirius were the most impressive.
I could see Saturn’s mud-colored rings gracefully swooping around the planet. It wasn’t big and the nucleus was about as large as a sesame seed, but it had rings as thick as its body. How amazing was it? Let’s just say I forgot how long I had to walk in the freezing cold weather.
“Wow, it’s so cool!” a boy at the telescope shouted; he wasn’t willing to move on until his mother pulled him down.
Sirius, which is the brightest star in the sky in the constellation of Canis Major, is bright enough to see with the naked eye. But in the telescope, it was white, truly twinkling, as if it were an animated character. It is also one of the closest stars to Earth, being only 8.7 light years away. Sirius supposedly has a white dwarf ( a cold star so called because of its relatively small size), called Sirius B, circling next to it after splitting off from its partner, but because Sirius itself was too bright, I couldn’t see the dwarf.
Outside the observatory, another guide showed visitors the constellations of Orion, Auriga, Gemini, Taurus and the magnitude stars: Capella, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Pollux, Sirius and Procyon. According to him, Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon make a giant triangle, which makes it easy for people to search the constellations.
Orion is the most recognizable constellation in the sky, particularly in winter. It has two stars for its “shoulders” and two for its feet, as well as three second-magnitude stars that line up to form a belt.
According to myth, the constellation was formed after Artemis, the sister of Apollo, fell in love with a mortal hunter called Orion. Apollo, not being open-minded to the idea of god-man love, sent a scorpion to kill Orion. Seeing her love slain, Artemis went into a deep funk, so Zeus put Orion’s body in the sky to cheer her up.
The constellation of Gemini comprises the “heads of the twins,” Pollux and Castor, who according to myth were the sons of Zeus and the mortal Leda, and the brothers of Helen of Troy. Castor is the elder and used to be brighter than Pollux, the guide said. When asked why Pollux is now brighter, he said, “Because the elder brother got older,” believe it or not.
Maybe he was right ― stars after all are born and die, and in the second observatory room I saw the four baby stars in the Orion nebula (star clouds). Perhaps the stars are more human than we think. I left wondering if they were looking back at me.
Stargazer’s delight: observatories in Korea
ByulMaro Astronomy Observatory
ByulMaro Astronomy Observatory, which opened in 2001 in Yeongwol, Gangwon province, provides both beautiful natural surroundings and apt conditions for astronomical observation, being located 800 meters (half a mile) above sea level on top of Mount Bongnae. Its four floors above ground and two underground contain one huge telescope with an 800-millimeter diameter lens and 15 supplementary telescopes with reflective and refracting lenses. Yeongwol is also good for stargazing because the sky is clear and the air is clean for about 190 days a year.
The observation hours are 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. in winter and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. in summer. It opens from Tuesdays to Sundays. It closes on the Lunar New Year, Chuseok holidays and the day after every national holiday. The entrance fees are 5,000 won ($5) for those 19 or older, and 4,000 won for anyone younger.
By car, take the Gyeongbu Expressway and exit at Jecheon. Go to Yeongwol and turn left at the Yeongwol branch of the Chuncheon District Court. You'll see the sign to the observatory. By train, get off at Yeongwol station and take a cab for a 30-minute ride. For more information, visit www.yao.or.kr, or call (033) 374-7460.
Sejong Astronomical Observatory
This observatory, opened in 1998 in Yeoju, Gyeonggi province, is the largest private observatory in Korea. It has cutting-edge telescopes such as a 26-inch refracting astronomical telescope, but its main draw is a two-day “camp” for up to 600 people. Visitors can use its pottery room, ride ice sleds and make plaster casts (there’s even a swimming pool in summer). Participants are of course also able to use the several telescopes in its two observatory rooms. The camp costs 40,000 won per person and includes three meals. Reservations are mandatory.
Take a bus at Gangnam Express Bus Terminal or Dongseoul Bus Terminal for Yeoju and at the terminal take a bus to Gamaseom. Get off at the last stop and walk for about 10 minutes.
By car, take the Gyeongbu Expressway and exit at Yeoju, heading to Yeoju-eup. Go straight and turn right at Yeoju University. Then turn right about 500 meters after passing the Yeoju Tunnel. For more information, visit www.sejongobs.co.kr or call (02) 3472-2620 or (031) 886-2200.
Taeduk Radio Astronomy Observatory
The observatory was established in 1986 in Daedeok, the “science town” in Daejeon. It is a part of the Korean Astronomy Observatory, a public research center for astronomy. It has a 14-meter telescope for aligned for millimeter-wave radio astronomy. The observatory is open to the public on Mondays only.
By train, get off at Daejeon station and take buses No. 105, 513 or 180. Get off at the Research Complex intersection and transfer to local buses No. 1 or 5. Get off at the Korean Astronomy Observatory. By car, take the Gyeongbu Expressway and exit at North Daejeon. For more information, visit www.trao.re.kr/trao/body_ko.html or call (042) 865-3282.
Reporting by Kong Jun-wan
by Park Sung-ha