Aim for the stars from the Cooks! Part 2

Monday September 15, 2014 Written by 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 airport runway. During capturing this majestic view a bright meteor (better known as a shooting star) fallen and made this portrait even more spectacular. Picture is actually made by 153 singular exposures and then mathematically stacked into this one. Photo by Petr Horálek. 14091114 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 airport runway. During capturing this majestic view a bright meteor (better known as a shooting star) fallen and made this portrait even more spectacular. Picture is actually made by 153 singular exposures and then mathematically stacked into this one. Photo by Petr Horálek. 14091114

Aitutaki – not only the lagoon

Czech astronomer, photographer and journalist, Petr Horálek fell in love with the Cook Islands in 2010 when he visited Rarotonga for the first time.

He recently returned, and has written about his experience of viewing 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 found at: http://www.astronom.cz/horalek. The following is the second of a two part series written by Horálek, and follows his recent trip to the Cooks, which included stops in Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Mangaia. Keep reading to learn about his journey to Aitutaki.

When one thinks of Aitutaki, the world famous turquoise lagoon comes to mind, along with One Foot Island, turtles, inviting motu on the horizon, and a great spot for a honeymoon.
But as you may have guessed, Aitutaki has a great night sky, too!
To take my photographs, I walked all around the main island and was stopped by many locals on motorbikes asking if I was crazy. Even after I explained, almost no one understood just what I was doing in the middle of the night, walking on the edge of the road with a lot of equipment. Those people were so kind, polite and supportive that eventually they offered rides to save me time.
I owe them so much, Meitaki Maata!
But back to the sky above Aitutaki: probably the best places I found on my walks were on the small hills of the main island. Especially the way from Amuri to Mauntgapu peak with Piraki view on the way is really advisable.
Even though some lights from the harbour and nearby resorts were impairing the perfect dark sky photography, the naked eye view to the Milky Way was incredible. Despite my efforts to view the Milky Way from some outer motu, I wasn’t able to find someone willing to take me there due to the wind during my stay.
Unfortunately, this particular dream about gazing the starry sky above the lagoon will probably never come true for me.
Mangaia – the window to the Universe
As I expected, the biggest night sky experience brought me to quiet and spiritual Mangaia.
As written before, I had experienced excellent night sky conditions there four years ago, when I waited for the unsuccessful solar eclipse there at the airport.
The sky was clear before the sunrise and the eclipse, but clouds came just after sunrise. That was probably the darkest night with the brightest stars I had ever seen until that time. I couldn’t forget. Mangaia was the most unambiguous target for me.
This time I spent five nights on the great island and had the pleasure of staying on the farm of Taoi Nooroa and his lovely wife Marilyn. Taoi’s such a supportive person and his wife had sympathy for all my unusual demands. Unfortunately, the first three nights were cloudy; the first night even came with heavy rain.
But on August 25, the skies finally cleared up and followed the night, which to describe in one word – majestic.
Taoi took me to the airport again, as I had requested. This place is wide open to watch the stars even very low above the horizon all around. I put my two cameras in a good spot close to the edge of the cliff; safely, of course.
I had originally planned to sleep on the ground while my cameras were doing the job, but after hours I realized there was too much to capture and I simply couldn’t miss any moment of this night.
I witnessed shooting stars from the descending activity of Perseid meteor shower, incredibly bright zodiacal light and zodiacal bridge across the sky and Milky Way with countless dark nebulae – dusty clouds in the level of our Galaxy splitting the Milky Way in two halves.
Though my eyes couldn’t see it, my camera was able to capture many colors of nebulae close to bright stars, as well as the fluorescence of upper Earth’s atmosphere, known to scientists as airglow.
Just after midnight, two dwarf galaxies – Magellanic clouds – appeared slowly above the horizon and were so bright I could easily see structures in them without a telescope. Then two more far galaxies – Andromeda galaxy and Swirl galaxy in constellation Triangle – slowly rose up on the opposite side of the sky.
So in one moment there were five galaxies visible without any telescope. I felt like I had everything so far just on the touch and Mangaia is a window to the Universe.
Dark sky doesn’t mean dark night!
As I walked to gaze the stars, I met confused people who insisted the night is too dark and I should go home, otherwise I could get lost or injure myself.
But this is, actually, a very deceptive and popular thought. If you live in a place under very dark sky, though you have several lit lamps in and around your house, you most likely won’t be able to see anything outside. Your sight is adapted to the light you spent time in before. So naturally, you decide to come back into an illuminated environment.
This is usually what people do, but the fact is that the human eyes are fascinating instruments and adaptable for eminently different light conditions. In the case of night-time, all you need is to wait more than a few minutes to let your eyes adapt to the dark.
And voilá – suddenly you see much more. Not only fainter stars, but also the road, trees, beach… well, almost everything. This is what people don’t know, so they often light up a torch and make their eyes dazed again.
I have confirmed this for myself many times during my walks for night sky photography.
For example, on Aitutaki I had prepared a head-lamp, but didn’t use it at all! I was able to walk even in the bushes, because the naturally dark starry sky is in fact bright enough to let me see where I was going.
At Mangaia airport I was – in the truth of the matter – very disappointed my first time, because I could see everything around me in the middle of the night and I just thought the sky was not as dark as I expected.
Then I realized that my eyes had adapted so well that even dark night was not actually dark. The only light I used for setting my cameras was a very weak red flash-light – as cyclists use in the night as a warning light for car drivers. Human eyes are not so sensitive for red color in the night, so even direct shine with this light can’t dazzle at all.
Lots of pictures ahead
…and the dream truly came true. I spent several spectacular nights photographing the starry sky above three Cook islands and took many pictures.
Some of them will be finished pretty quickly, while others will likely take years of post processing.
By hook or by crook, I made it. I didn’t give up, and after four long years of fighting, I can proudly introduce the rest of the world to just how amazing the starry sky is here above the Cooks and just how close you can feel to the Universe.
Night sky – a new challenge for the Cooks’ Tourism?
Many people are still dreaming about visiting paradise, and the Cook Islands offer this in so many ways.
However, as you can read, the Cooks have much more potential on the world scale!
It’s kind of a shame there’s not yet an attraction for visitors wanting to watch stars in the Cooks, lectures or basics astronomical courses, such as night sky photography.
Just a small telescope and a place far from main resorts would offer such an amazing experience to visitors and residents alike, no matter their interests.
In addition to the cultural and natural wealth of this paradise, night sky gazing would definitely have its place among unique Cooks attractions.

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