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New friends in New Zealand: what's that funny little group of starts?

HAVING MADE SEVERAL TRIPS below the equator, I thought I knew the southern sky fairly well. But when my wife, Wendee, and I stepped off the airplane at Auckland, New Zealand, at 5 o'clock on a wintry morning in June 2006, I couldn't identify the star patterns splashed across the sky above us.

One particularly prominent beacon, I later learned, was 1st-magnitude Fomalhaut in Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. Always hugging the southern horizon when visible from our home in Arizona, Fomalhaut was now almost overhead. Near it were the faint stars of Grus, the Crane, one of the constellations created by Johann Bayer in 1603. I found this kite-like figure a significant star pattern when seen high in the Southern Hemisphere sky, especially when I viewed it in relation to old friends like Pegasus rising in the far northeast, and the circumpolar Southern Cross beneath the south celestial pole.

A few hours later, well-known amateur astronomer Rodney Austin greeted us in New Plymouth. Seeing him was the perfect antidote to the fatigue of our voyage. As we talked, I recalled his three comet discoveries, especially the one in December 1989 that led to the infamous cover of the February 1990 Sky & Telescope, proclaiming "Monster Comet Coming!" This discovery made him the subject of international media attention, and eventually he visited the United States to have a front-row seat when Comet Austin was predicted to make its best showing in the northern sky. Unfortunately, it never lived up to early predictions.

During Austin's 1990 trip he visited me in Arizona, and we had the joy of watching the Space Shuttle Discovery and the just-launched Hubble Space Telescope sail overhead in a predawn sky. To our surprise, the shuttle was jettisoning waste water, causing it to blossom into an amazing artificial comet.


Our 2006 reunion came about because of the annual meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand (RASNZ). As the Sun set, we headed off to New Plymouth Observatory, where a venerable 6-inch Clark refractor was poised for an evening of stargazing. We turned it toward the mists of Eta Carinae, whose star and nebula are a signature of the southern Milky Way.

This was the object that so thrilled American husband-and-wife astronomers Bart and Priscilla Bok. "Listen closely, Bart," Priscilla told him in November 1975. "When I am gone, you will find me at any time in the Eta Carinae Nebula. That's where the Good Lord is cooking up stars faster than anywhere else, and I want a front-row seat." Priscilla died just days later, and after Bart passed away in 1983, we imagined the couple reunited at Eta Carinae. On that evening in New Plymouth, we remembered the Boks as part of the sky they loved so much.

Catching Variable-Star Fever

Arne Henden, director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), and his wife, Patsy, were also at the RASNZ meeting. Since becoming director of the AAVSO in 2004, Henden has been emphasizing new methods of observing variable stars. But he also remains a firm believer in the continuing value of traditional visual observations.

Henden offered a two-hour primer on the various observing techniques that AAVSO supports. Although the workshop was designed for advanced observers anxious to begin serious research with CCD cameras, it was also useful for my own observing program. At one time I was recording the brightness of two dozen variables in the Orion Nebula every night, but now it's only the cataclysmic variable TV Corvi that I monitor nightly, along with occasional views of T Coronae Borealis and a few others stars that have the potential to unexpectedly light up the sky. Even for this limited program, Arne's ideas were helpful.

Another presenter at the meeting was John Drummond. His topic of meteors and meteor showers was diametrically opposite that of variable stars in the sense that meteor observing is best done without any optical aid. John introduced me to the work of Roscoe McIntosh, whose groundbreaking research appeared in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935. After almost three-quarters of a century, McIntosh's list of Southern Hemisphere meteor showers is still the most comprehensive available.

Our visit to this beautiful land coincided with a stretch of excellent weather. During the society's annual banquet, I asked Rodney if he'd be interested in searching for comets. His eyes lit up, and just before 5 a.m. the next morning, he knocked on my door. We traveled a few miles to his special site near a group of small observatories, and we set up his 8-inch telescope. We took turns observing during the night's final hour. As I watched Rodney move the scope and listened to him remark on what he was seeing, I was impressed to be with the master. Later we drove to sites marking two of his comet discoveries.

While automated sky patrols have reduced the potential for amateur comet discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere sky remains relatively fertile. There are new comets yet for Rodney Austin.

A few weeks after our return to the United States, I again observed with members of RASNZ. This time, however, they were remotely using my 14-inch reflector in Arizona. Although a thunderstorm was raging in New Zealand, they were photographing galaxies with a telescope located halfway around the world. The joy of observing with friends has taken on new meaning in the Internet Age.

With the discovery of Comet P/2006 T1 last October, David Levy brings his total to 22. A complete list is available at comets.htm.
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Title Annotation:star trails; Astronomical Society of New Zealand
Author:Levy, David H.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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