Aim for the stars from the Cooks!

Saturday September 13, 2014 Written by Petr Horálek Published in Weekend
Two galaxies and meteor - Two dwarf galaxies well known as Magellanic clouds visible only from Earth’s southern hemisphere captured from the south-eastern end of Mangaia’s airport runway. While capturing this majestic view a bright meteor (better known as a shooting star) fell and made this portrait even more spectacular. This picture is made by 153 singular exposures and then mathematically stacked into one. Two galaxies and meteor - Two dwarf galaxies well known as Magellanic clouds visible only from Earth’s southern hemisphere captured from the south-eastern end of Mangaia’s airport runway. While capturing this majestic view a bright meteor (better known as a shooting star) fell and made this portrait even more spectacular. This picture is made by 153 singular exposures and then mathematically stacked into one. Petr Horálek.

Czech astronomer, photographer and journalist, Petr Horálek fell in love with Cook Islands in 2010 when he visited Rarotonga for the first time. He recently returned, and has written about his experience after visiting several islands to view the marvels of the universe – from paradise.

Horálek specializes in rare sky phenomena and night sky photography, and in July 2014, just a few days after he celebrated his 28th birthday, one of his photographs was chosen by NASA as a prestigious astronomy picture of the day. When he isn’t working on photographs, observing the night sky by telescope, or writing an article, he’s usually trekking, snorkeling, or passionately rowing a boat. His work can be round at:
Below is the first in a two part series written by Horálek.

Crystal turquoise lagoons, intense smell of flowers and ocean, barbecued sea fish, the beautiful voice of singer Tara Kauvai and a lot more make Cook Islands such a powerfully unique paradise.
But there’s more, much more.
Just after a colorful sunset – if no heavy clouds are passing through – the night comes with eminently wonderful views to the enormous Universe we live in.
It’s so far, but from the Cook Islands it feels much closer than from anywhere else. The conditions are so precious, it makes one need to travel to the middle of South Pacific from the opposite side of the world.
And that long way across is really worth it.

Why the Cook Islands?
What makes the Cooks so special for watching stars is its location. The first very important thing is that the Cooks are in the middle of the endless ocean, far away from big cities. The closest agglomeration is Auckland, at more than 2900 km away, meaning there’s absolutely no so-called light pollution.
No heavy traffic and dust particles, which could scatter the light from street lamps around bigger villages of islands. No large commercial lighting and billboards, notoriously found in Europe or the US, not even on Raro or Aitutaki – the Cooks’ most visited islands.
It’s enough just to walk away from the closest lamp, elevate the head and look up to the sky. But there is another rare aspect of the night sky here on the Cooks. Thanks to its position not so far south from the Earth’s equator, locals and visitors here can easily witness the most amazing parts of the Milky Way – the starry island in the Universe in which we are living.
The brightest part of the Milky Way is in the lovely constellation Scorpios - well known in Maori culture for the two stars in its spike - and actually lies in the direction of the center of our Galaxy.
 There are not many places in the world to see this part of the sky high above in such beautiful conditions. Thanks to the views from the Cooks, the sky can be seriously compared with a few places in the world like the south island of New Zealand, Argentina, Chile or South Africa.
However, unlike the aforementioned locations, the Cook Islands offer a real paradise at all levels.
So what could be more tempting than watching the pure beauty of the starry sky and shooting stars on the edge of a sandy beach with coconut palms behind you?

The sky and reflections
Night sky from Mangaia airport above the cliff wasn’t as dark that someone could get lost. But without so-called light pollution is just incredible. On the right-up is Large Magellanic cloud, one of the dwarf galaxies called by Maori language Nga mau. In the middle is the brightest star of the night sky – Sirius. Just on left from the star is lying Orion with its colorful nebulae, unfortunately not visible to the naked eyes. On the top-left are Pleiades, more known like Matariki. Image is panorama from 16 singular images. Photo by Petr Horálek. 14091116

A Lost Dream
As a member of huge group of travelers for a total solar eclipse, I was touched by the beauty of Rarotonga’s dark starry sky for the first time on July 4, 2010. The absolute shock continued in Mangaia.
Unfortunately I wasn’t a photographer at that time, and when I arrived back to the Czech Republic, I realized I had likely witnessed the most amazing starry sky of my lifetime. I promised myself I would return.
Unfortunately, as the Cooks are so far from my country, it’s unimaginably expensive to get here from the heart of Europe. So I started to save as much money as I could.
I ate less, lived on the floor of my office, and gave up my social life; all earned money was put towards my return. Sadly, when I calculated expenses for the trip, I discovered it would take me more than 3 years to save enough money. Even though it broke my heart, after less than a year I had to give up my dream of returning to the Cooks and simply live with the memories from this paradise.

Long Hard Way
After four years I became a passionate photographer and it afforded me the opportunity to focus on just one thing – how to process digital images of night sky objects.
Night sky photography isn’t only about long exposures and good composition; it takes a long time of post processing, especially in a mathematical way. As a graduated astrophysicist, I used all my capacity to find a new way of making night sky pictures, sharing the unknown beauty of the sky with people around the world.
Ultimately, my goal was to show them that what they have above their heads is being missed because of a stressful lifestyle.
Actually, there is lot of to see even without any prior knowledge; all you need to do is take a look…
With this message, I started to look for a way to apply my passion. I was unhappy in my polluted country and my dream of returning to the Cook Islands was still weighing heavy on my mind.
After some time, I decided on a radical change and applied for a Working Holiday Visa to New Zealand. As a Czech citizen, the limited number of visas sold out in less than 40 minutes after the online application form opened! I was so lucky! I’d realized that this was probably the last chance for me to get back to the Cooks, and I would be the first person in the world to capture these kinds of images from here.
Well, the second one – the world famous Turkish astrophotographer TunçTezel first complicatedly processed images of night sky above the Cooks in 2010, but only from Mangaia.
With this goal in my mind, I started the hard way of life again, but now in New Zealand: picking kiwifruit, oranges, lemons and mandarins, working in hard conditions, wet, sick, without break, saving all the money I could.
In my first 3 weeks in New Zealand I lost more than 20 kilograms of weight and sometimes lost my mind in stereotype, almost understanding the life of slaves.
I was cheated by the boss, working in subversive conditions in Gisborne, not even being paid the minimum wage. But I just couldn’t stop. I worried about losing my job and wasting time before my only possible term for revisiting the Cooks.
Despite the bad working conditions, I was sometimes able to earn in a week what would take me two months of work in my country.
It took four long months of this hard work and spent my free time testing all of the functions of my cameras, and improving myself in mathematical processing. Even that was little bit harder. To continue with self-education of night sky photography, I needed to search information on the internet, though it came as an unpleasant surprise that internet access in New Zealand was incredibly expensive.
It was all a huge price to pay for paradise, but it was worth it, in the end.
Rarotonga – the Emerald in the Pacific with Zodiacal Light
After a long wait, my first night came on August 18. Hastily sitting with my camera on a tripod on the beach of Rarotonga Backpackers, I hardly knew what would follow. I almost forgot what it was like, but I knew that new memories were ahead.
And then it came. The night … finally. Better than I remembered. Better than I expected. Milky Way like a pier in the endless starry carpet, so far away over the ocean. But this poetic impression wasn’t even close to enough.
It wasn’t a coincidence to arrive on Raro on this day. August and September are the best months to watch the night sky on the Cooks. All you need are clear skies and no moonlight. The New Moon was to occur on August 26, so I had many nights to enjoy the dark sky.
Probably the most amazing part of my first night was seeking so-called zodiacal light. In most of the world, zodiacal light is invisible or is a very faint and strange light column sticking out of the western horizon just less than an hour after sunset, continuing up to zenith, almost as if someone far out on the ocean is holding up a very powerful torch.
I wondered if anyone in the Cooks knows just how unique this is to witness? This light comes from dust particles spread around our solar system level, as the residual material from forming our Sun and planets 5 billion years ago. The dust itself doesn’t shine, it simply scatters the sunshine.
Many people didn’t understand what they were seeing until the first explanation came in the 17th century.
Zodiacal light in very dark places continues as a faint bridge across the sky and follows opposite column on the eastern horizon before sunrise. As the Earth, with its sloped axis, moves around the Sun during the year, the slope of the zodiacal light changes with it.
Usually the best conditions in the southern hemisphere can be found in September, while March is ideal in the northern hemisphere. Furthermore, to see the light erected upright is only possible in places close to the Equator – like the Cook Islands.


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