Friday, March 23, 2012

Astronomy Domine

The Southern Lights (not taken by me)
First of all, kudos to anyone who gets the Pink Floyd reference of the title. :-)

OK, so while Mike was in New Zealand a big goal of his was to see the southern sky at night. As an active astronomy enthusiast, there were all kinds of stars and constellations only visible in the southern hemisphere he was eager to see.  And although I have seen the brilliant sky at night, I was very excited to learn more as well.

We had some stellar nights (no pun intended) for viewing later in the trip with no clouds and no moon. In Queenstown after realizing it was too bright in town we drove out just a ways, got out of the car, and WOW.  The number of stars you can see is almost incomprehensible.  And the Milky Way band across the sky. WOW.

Mike pointed out the various stars and constellations - and noted that Orion was "upside down".  And there were the two Clouds of Magellan - and they do look like glowing clouds about the size the moon would be - except that they are entire galaxies beyond our own.  We did this a couple of different nights - with binoculars even to really see some detail - and each time it seemed I could just stand there and stare up for hours.  It's just fantastic.

But the highlight came on our last night, when we had arranged to be part of an organized excursion to go up to an observatory near Lake Tekapo where a university has many telescopes in one of the darkest places you can find.  And the clear, moonless skies were present again which I was SO happy about!

Since there are active astronomers working at the observatory they are very strict about any extraneous white light.  So part way up the mountain the bus driver turned OFF his headlights and navigated solely by his amber parking lights.  A bit scary weaving up that road? Oh yes.  And once at the top no phones or flashlights or anything that emitted white light were allowed.  The amazing thing is that even with absolutely no light around the light from the stars was actually enough to (carefully) make your way around.  You could see the ground and silhouettes of the other people, but not faces.  Pretty cool.  So while could listen to our guides, we never saw what they looked like.

The green laser pointers (not taken by me)
Then came the fun part of the guides pointing out things in the sky with green laser pointers which is very effective.  You could swear the laser beam goes all the way to the star in question.  And right as the guide was pointing out a "blank" area next to the Southern Cross, a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky next to his pointer.  WOW.

Then came looking through two different telescopes (one free standing and one in a rotating dome), each pointed at something else, and for the rest of the tour they moved the telescopes from one point of interest to another and everyone got a chance to see.  WOW.

You look at Alpha Centauri, the third brightest star in the sky, and see that it is two stars - a binary star!  You look at Omega Centauri, a quite dim star in the sky but then through the telescope you see it is actually a globular cluster containing 4 million stars.  Then there was Saturn (rings and all), the Tarantula Nebula, the Jewel Box, and a few others.  WOW.

I never thought it would have made sense to bring my DSLR camera to such a thing, but it turns out I should have.  They had an astrophotographer present who could setup your camera for a nice long exposure of the Southern Lights.  Oh yes.  Due to the recent solar flare activity the Southern Lights were somewhat visible.  It wasn't terribly colorful until you did a long exposure of it - like you see in the first photo.  Still pretty cool!

So as you can tell I am pretty blown away by the wonders of the sky and how beautiful and mesmerizing it is.  And I was so glad to have Mike share his knowledge with us and to get to look at things up close and personal at the observatory.  WOW.

Stargazing group (not taken by me)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Queenstown Paragliding

Jeff and Kiwi pilot Brady

While in Queenstown with Anne's dad last week we  both decided it was the perfect time and place to finally try paragliding.

Being the "Adventure Capital of the World" there was no shortage of companies willing to help you fling yourself off a bridge, jet down a river, swing across a canyon, jump out of a plane, or pretty much anything else you can think of. But paragliding seemed like a good blend of thrills and sanity.

We couldn't convince Mike to give a whirl, but we both were ear-to-ear grins the whole time! Take off was as easy as walking briskly for a few steps at the top of the mountain above Queenstown.  With no effort the sail filled with air and boom you're floating over the trees.

Anne and her French pilot

From there it was about 10 minutes of gliding through the air with only the sound of the air breezing past you.  You're strapped to the pilot and get a little "seat" to make it very comfortable. Anne requested a "calm" ride but I got to have my pilot do some tight spins and turns pulling a few g's in the process.  Oh yes I like that!

The landing site was an open playing field right in the middle of town and touchdown was smooth and easy.  I landed first and got to see & record Anne's landing. Our pilots were exceptional and took photos and video on the way down.  Facebook followers will have seen this already, but here's a silly little video I put together using iMovie and the video from the adventure. We both highly recommend paragliding to EVERYONE!