The southern sky is filled with many wonders. Our local horizon hides the bright Eta Carina nebula, Alpha Centauri the closest star, the Magellanic Clouds, and hundreds of galaxies and clusters. Omega Centauri, the largest Globular Cluster in the sky, passes tantalizing just above the southern horizon.
To view these objects from below the equator means committing to a long plane flight (18 hours to Chile or Australia, 24+ to Africa) and a great deal of expense. Sky & Telescope working with TravelQuest International provided an alternative during February. Instead of traveling to the southern hemisphere they arranged to view from a dark sky site in Costa Rica. The site they selected was La Ensenada Lodge located at the northern part of the Gulf of Nicoya (10ø 8' N 85ø 2' E). The lodge is a part of a private nature reserve and is located in a dry part of Costa Rica far from any light sources. February is also the driest month of the year in Costa Rica. The photo (see page 2) shows the almost flat southern horizon.
Costa Rica itself is a modern, largely middle class country (85% of the population is middle class or better). It is quite a change for those that have traveled in the 3rd world. The roads are in good condition, the electric power works and you can even drink the water.
This type of visit is quite a switch for those used to the more Spartan life of a typical dark sky party. TQ booked the entire lodge. The lodge agreed to replace all of its white lights with red bulbs and even disabled some local streetlights. This means that you could observe from near your room in complete darkness. When you were done a real bed awaited you with a shower and 3 good meals a day. The only downside was the daytime heat and humidity. After 9 PM the temperature was comfortable and there was no dew.
One of the most important aspects of the trip was that it was very spouse friendly. Since the lodge is a nature reserve they have many trips during the day. We arranged for a white light area so that non-observers could read and play cards. My wife went to Shingletown last year and has no interest in other star parties. Yet she felt this trip was one of our best vacations. As a bonus she could walk out and see what her husband was looking at.
The trip spent four nights at the lodge. The weather was generally good. The first two nights had good transparency, but really crummy seeing. We got clouded out early on the third night, but resumed about 2 AM with average transparency and seeing. The final night was the best; excellent seeing and good transparency. We did not do a visual magnitude, but the S&T guide (Gary Seronik) measured the sky on a previous trip and this was the darkest site he had measured to date.
I had the opportunity to set up next to Steve Gottlieb, an active member of TAC and a frequent S&T contributor. He brought a 13" scope and was able to pull in some really good objects. Setting up next to him proved to be very educational. I brought my new 8" string scope. This size is more than adequate to provide four full nights of objects to view.
This time of year most of the major objects are visible. Only the Small Magellanic Cloud was not visible. The Large Magellanic Cloud was just above the hills across the Gulf at sunset. We could view it for about an hour each night. The other major objects were visible at reasonable elevations. For example Eta Carina was at about the same elevation as the lower parts of Canis Major in the bay area. Given the nearly flat, completely dark southern horizon it could be easily viewed. At about 2 AM the Milky Way ran almost parallel with the horizon. Near dawn you can see where the southern Milky Way joins with the Scorpio and Sagittarius portions visible here during the summer.
My time in Costa Rica was some of the most productive I have ever had. Before leaving I made extensive notes on which objects to view (only those south of -40ø dec were of interest) and prepared sky maps for each two-hour interval of the night. Over the four nights I logged the two major nebulas Eta Carina and Tarantella plus NGC 3199, 4 planetaries, 10 globs, 16 galaxies, and 16 open clusters. There were many other objects in Eta Carina and the LMC that I saw but did not log.
The most unique object we observed was the Homunculus that was a part of the star Eta Carina. Steve first pointed this out in the 13". On the final night the two major lobs of the outburst were easily visible as orange extensions to the star. Steve claimed he could also see the streamers, but I could not. The lobs were also visible in my 8", but the color was not nearly as intense.
This trip is probably the easiest and cheapest way to see the southern sky. If anyone is interested, TravelQuest is planning to repeat this trip next February. They are also considering a trip to Chile in July of 2005.
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