"Flying Stars"

Jim Sweitzer - January 3, 1995

    I'm on my way to CARA's observatory at the South Pole. I knew I would write a log for the online parts of "Live From Antarctica", but didn't imagine I'd be starting so soon -- during the flight to New Zealand.

It's just after 4:00 AM Kiwi time. I'm on United flight 841 bound for Auckland. So far I've crossed at least four time zones headed west and dropped nearly seventy degrees south in latitude. I've been traveling for quite a while and can't sleep. On this twelve hour flight you start to do all kinds of things to entertain yourself. I'm sick of TV and don't read anymore because my eyes can't take it.

I've had my window shade down, because I was afraid the morning sun would wake me. (Ha!). I am sitting on the eastern side of the airplane. I am an astronomer and can anticipate such a rude celestial event. Sleepless, I decide to open my shade and look out. To my surprise, I can actually see many stars and they are almost all instantly recognizable. This is because I worked for many years in a planetarium and know most of the constellations no matter how they are twisted about in the sky. I throw my blanket over my head to block out the stray light from inside the cabin. The sky grows blacker and the number of stars I can see multiplies when there is no glaring reflection.

High and to the right in the window are the unmistakable pair, Alpha and Beta Centauri. Alpha is about ten degrees above the horizon and Beta sits directly above it. Up and to the right of these two stars is the Southern cross. If the long bottom section of the Southern Cross were the big hand on a clock it would read five o'clock. I get a special thrill seeing these two sets of stars, since they are the guides to the South Pole of the sky. That's why they are in the CARA logo. You merely imagine a line extending from the bottom, long part of the cross and construct a perpendicular bisector cutting the line joining Alpha and Beta Centauri. Where the bisector and line from the cross intersect is an imaginary point in the sky. This is the South Pole of the sky. My colleagues now at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station have this point directly over their heads. They can't see this point in the dark sky like I can because the Sun is up 24 hours a day now at Pole. Even for me, there is nothing to be seen at the South Pole of the sky. This is because there is no southern pole star like we are used to in the northern hemisphere.

Lying like a snake along the horizon directly to the east is the constellation Scorpius. Its poisonous tail looks like as if it's attacking the South Pacific below. The head of the Scorpion raises itself up slightly to the left. This orientation is peculiar for northerners like myself. Scorpius' brightest star, Antares glows an unmistakable pale orange from the head.

The head of the Scorpion looks like it's gazing at two stellar surprises. They don't appear on star charts and they are extremely bright, so they must be planets. Jupiter shines brightly as a yellowish dot just to the left of Antares. Continuing up and a little farther left a few degrees is Venus, who steals the show with her brilliance. Maybe she is attending to Jupiter after the beating he suffered from comet Shoemaker-Levi 9 this past July. I recall how our SPIREX telescope at Pole snapped a succession of near infrared images of this cosmic mugging.

Pulling the blanket even tighter over my head I cut off any remaining stray light from the airplane cabin. Now it is dark enough to see the Milky Way. I am a bit surprised that it's so visible from an airplane. It looks like a trail of steam rising from where Scorpius stings the sea. It drifts up and to the right, through Alpha and Beta Centauri and up to the Southern Cross at the edge of my window. I can see the dark, cloudy region to the left of the bottom part of the cross. It's called the Coal Sack and is really a collection of dark clouds of molecules and dust in deep space blocking the light of the stars beyond. It is the type of cloud that CARA's AST/RO telescope will scrutinize this coming Austral winter.

Now, I catch sight of a large, low silhouette that I don't really understand. It looks like two big humps and seems to move. It is moving towards the tail of the plane. How could I be so stupid as to think it was part of the Milky Way! It must be my fatigue. I now see that it is a terrestrial cloud -- a very tall one, obviously. Soon it obscures the view temporarily. All I can see now is the steel-gray wing of the 747 reflecting the dim cabin lights. The captain turns on the seatbelt sign.

One hour later, I look up from my typing and see a brilliant orange- red band along the horizon changing colors with increasing elevation. black. This band of beginning sunrise is where Scorpius was first seen. The sun will rise soon. Only Jupiter and Venus still glow in the sky. The wing of the aircraft is now a black silhouette against the brightening glow of dawn.

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