Astro Bob: Journey to Antarctic skies
I just returned from two weeks in Antarctica and the Falkland Islands exploring, camping and learning the southern stars. Let me take you there.
How many COVID tests does it take to go to Antarctica and back? For me, six. That was also the number of airplanes I squeezed into during the course of my travels. But I'd gladly make the 8,000-mile (12,700 km) journey all over again. While nothing on this Earth escapes the reach of humanity, the icy continent comes close. For nearly two weeks I never encountered a plane, car or a road. We saw just one human habitation — an Argentine research station on a tiny island named Half Moon. With so little human presence, the bottom of the world felt as big, wild and alien as the surface of Mars.
I traveled to Antarctica for Sky & Telescope magazine and Insight Cruises (Pasadena) to assist with the magazine group's 19 passengers, give talks about astronomy and witness the total solar eclipse on December 4. We boarded the MS Roald Amundsen, a ship operated by the Norwegian company Hurtigruten, on Nov. 25 in Punta Arenas , a city of 124,000 located on the Strait of Magellan near the southern tip of South America. From the waterfront, the town shoulders up a long, green hill that looks uncannily like the setting of my city, Duluth, Minnesota.
We traveled south through the Beagle Channel — the same route taken by Charles Darwin during his seminal voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. Powerful winds and glaciers highlighted this part of the journey, as described by Darwin when he saw them for the first time. On January 29, 1833, he wrote in his field notes:
"It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow."
I leaned back along the deck railing and watched the same massive glaciers pass, while black-browed albatrosses swept over the water, their wing tips nearly touching the wave tops. Powerful 50-mile-an-hour winds greeted us at each glacial "opening" in the mountains that lined the channel. After weeks of preparation, planning and computer captivity, I completely abandoned myself to this newfound, raw wildness and choked up for joy.
The Amundsen and its approximately 250 passengers and crew left the continent behind late that night after passing Cape Horn and entering the notorious Drake Passage, a 600-mile-long (1,000 km) waterway at the juncture of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that extends nearly to the Antarctic Peninsula. The shortest route to Antarctica, waves and winds here can be ferocious.
I was asleep at the time but awakened by a strange sensation, as if someone were repeatedly lifting up one side of my mattress to roll me out of bed. Coming to, I realized that enormous waves rocked the ship and remembered where we were. For the next three days we hapless passengers walked around like drunks, pitching and swaying through the hallways. As an older person, it's hard enough to put on a pair of pants, But doing so in a rocking ship without toppling over required all the concentration I could muster. Standing up, I'd get the first leg in OK, but that second leg? Ho, boy. Risky business.
We saw neither land nor ship for three days until arriving in Antarctic waters. Icebergs floated by, some with seals and penguins as passengers. Mountains and massive glaciers lined the peninsular waterways. Some of the bergs glowed strikingly blue as if soaked with blueberry snowcone syrup. The air temperature hovered right around the freezing point with generally light winds. That may sound warm, but remember that here it was nearly summer. Not surprisingly, daylight lasted many hours and twilight at our southerly latitude of 64.5 degrees lingered all night.
For the next four or five days, we made four excursions by zodiac boat to Half Moon Island, Orne Harbor, Danco Island and Duse Bay to see multiple penguin species in their rookeries, albatross nesting sites and other wildlife including crabeater seals and several different kinds of whales.
Penguins really do walk like you see in the cartoons, but they also glide and waddle on their bellies down the snowy slopes like balloons with legs. Since they evolved without land predators they had no fear of us, only curiosity, an emotion we shared. One of my favorite sights was a seal relaxing on an iceberg. Who can't relate to a nap?
The ship observed strict COVID protocols, which meant keeping 15 feet (5 meters) distance from wildlife so as to not inadvertently infect the animals with COVID-19. We also wore thick rubber boots that were cleaned and sanitized after every outing. Besides land excursions, you could also sign up to go kayaking or join members of the ship's science crew in a boat to gather data for citizen science projects. I threw my name in a lottery for an overnight camping trip . . . and won! For a fee, I joined 29 others, pitched my tent and hiked in the Antarctic twilight well after sunset. To further the campers' sense of isolation and quietude, the ship pulled away and disappeared from sight, not to return until the morning.
We listened to the gentle slap of waves from a nearby beach, while calving glaciers rumbled like distant thunder through the night. I say night, but it was not to be had. At deepest twilight, the sky was still blue. It took all my effort to see just two stars: Sirius (the brightest star) and Canopus, second brightest. In the eastern sky opposite the sun, the Earth's shadow slid slowly along the bottom of the sky and remained visible all night. From home, it's only present for 20 minutes before overtaken by darkness. With the usual markers of time at a standstill it felt like a living dream. Where was I? And why did it take me 68 years to find this place? Questions followed by an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
I wanted to stay up all night in this pastel stasis, but with temperatures in the mid-to-upper 20s (-4° C), I only made it to 2 a.m. before finding my way into a sleeping bag. Sleep felt good, so good that I was the last person to wake up that morning. I quickly exited the tent with a big smile on my face and packed up for the return trip to the ship.
The irony of Antarctic (and Arctic) daylight is that the sun is up for much of the day in summer, but because the poles lie at the extremes of the planet, it never climbs very high. So you get sunshine, but it never warms up to the degree it does in the mid-latitudes, where the sun is much higher in the sky in the summer season. For the entire time we stayed in the Antarctic it never got dark. To see stars, we had to travel again, and (too) soon enough we were headed north to the Falkland Islands.
On the way, we passed tabular icebergs the size of shopping centers until all that was Antarctica receded into the distance, and open water embraced us once again. The captain fired up an extra generator to hurry the ship northeast in search of clear skies for the total solar eclipse. Despite best efforts, things looked bleak on eclipse morning. We awoke to a solid blanket of low clouds (called a marine layer) but soldiered on fiddling with cameras and regaling one another with stories of last-minute clearings from previous eclipses. Around local sunrise (2:40 a.m.), I looked up, saw a hint of blue, and remember telling someone that the coming sun would burn off the clouds just in time. Well, it didn't.
Then it happened. I wasn't prepared for how quickly the moon's shadow swept across the ship, bringing 1 minute 30 seconds of darkness to our tiny craft on the open ocean. The depth of the darkness — in part due to clouds — combined with the shadow's swift arrival made me shiver.
When the light returned, it did so with such speed I had the distinct sensation of opening my eyes — as if waking from a sleep — even though they were already open. Does that make sense? This wasn't an imagined impression either. The moon's shadow touched the Earth at such an oblique angle it moved at the exceptional speed of 6,300 mph (2.8 km/sec)! While we didn't see the eclipsed sun it was nonetheless an intense physical and emotional experience.
We spent the rest of our days and nights tooling around the Falklands, called Las Malvinas by the Argentines. I had no idea how wild and scenic these steep-sided islands were. They also abound in wildlife including rockhopper penguins (they hop instead of waddle), albatrosses and a great variety of birds including the hawk-like striated caracara. I also saw my first road and, heaven forbid, my first car after nearly two weeks in wilder places.
It was here at latitude 53° south that we finally saw a starry sky. Five nights worth! The sun set around 9:30 p.m. and rose at 4:30. While twilight lingered the entire night, it hugged the southern horizon during the darkest hours from 11:30 p.m. till 1:30 a.m. The captain agreed to turn out much of the lighting on the two open, upper decks, making them them ideal for star-and-planet gazing.
Sirius and Canopus, a brilliant gem in the constellation Carina the Keel, were the first stars to show. But the hands-down favorites were Alpha and Beta Centauri along with the Southern Cross low in the southeastern sky. Alpha and Beta shone like a pair of eyes and resembled that other pair of bright stars, Castor and Pollux, in the northern constellation Gemini the Twins.
Alpha and Beta directed us to the Southern Cross, located a little more than a fist to their left. From our latitude, the Cross was circumpolar. That is, it revolved around the southern pole star like the Big Dipper does around Polaris, never setting. In early summer, the Cross stands below the pole star, so it appeared upside-down from the way it's usually depicted in phots. As the sky darkened, the bright and star-studded southern Milky Way emerged. Unlike the northern Milky Way we see, this section is continuous and not divided into two branches along its length. I easily spotted the bright Eta Carinae nebula and several star clusters, including the Southern Pleiades (IC 2602) with just the naked eye. My little 8x30 binoculars revealed even more nebulae and clusters.
One of the most fascinating things for me personally was seeing how the northern Milky Way transitions into the southern. The Gemini-Orion-Canis Major winter section we view from home appears faint and rather smooth. But once you dip south of Canis Major, it quickly transforms into a busy band of bright stars and clumpy clusters all the way to the Southern Cross and beyond. As for Orion, he stood on his head along with his constellation pals Taurus, Gemini and the Pleiades. In the southern hemisphere this tiny, dipper-shaped group looked more like a pork chop than a dipper.
Alongside the Milky Way and hovering near the zenith we easily found the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds , the Milky Way's two most prominent companion galaxies. They're forever out of view from North America, which makes them a must-see when traveling south. Paired with the sparkling band of the Milky Way the sight was one of incredible richness. I also spent time one night tracking down "new" constellations I'd not seen before. With the help of my sky app I identified Tucana, Phoenix, Apis, Octans (and the faint southern pole star, Sigma Octantis), Musca, Circinis and several others.
Not only were the familiar northern constellations flipped but so were the moon and planets. They appeared in a line just like home but slanted to the "right" of the setting sun instead of left. Taking pictures proved a challenge because the ship never left open water. Rocked by waves and shimmied by wind, the moving ship caused the stars to pitch this way and that, necessitating very short exposures and high ISOs. I waited until the stars would momentarily "settle" and then snapped short bursts of images at ISO 25,600 with an exposure between 1.6 and 2.5 seconds. Any longer and they stretched into arcs and streaks.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip was helping others take their first astrophotos and sharing the joys of skywatching. through lectures and nightly observing sessions. I met so many good people, heard countless life stories, ate a ton of elegantly prepared and delicious food, lost an enormous amount of sleep, experienced grandeur and generally had the time of my life.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob .