Stargazing expert Sævar Helgi Bragason explains why Hotel Rangá’s observatory is particularly unique and gives an overview
of how the telescopes and location of Hotel Rangá, are relevant globally
“Hotel Rangá is situated in a beautiful area in the southern part of Iceland, where the skies have excellent clarity and there is virtually no light pollution. Here we have a fantastic 360 degree view of the night sky with no trees or large buildings in the way (except of course the observatory itself), so it’s the perfect place to go stargazing.
The Hotel Rangá observatory is by far the most advanced in Iceland. With a push of a button, the roof rolls off, revealing the night sky above us. Despite the fact that the roof rolls-off, the observatory offers exceptionally good shelter for the cold northerly wind, making it possible for us to stay outside for hours without freezing.
The observatory houses three very high quality telescopes. We have a large 14 inch Celestron Edge HD reflector and two apochromatic refractors: a 130mm from Astro-Physics and a 160mm by TEC. All the scopes are on computerized mounts that track the objects in the sky perfectly. This equipment is ideal for astrophotography, even basic research. We also have one other telescope, the largest one in Iceland, an 18 inch reflector.
The Hotel Rangá observatory is the only public observatory in Ice-land that offers guided tours of the night sky by expert stargazers. Although we don’t experience 24 hours of darkness, the Sun is only visible for about four hours during the darkest part of the year, making it possible for us to observe the stars for about 20 hours non-stop, without being freezing cold. That’s pretty unique worldwide! (In similar latitudes around the world, the temperature can easily drop much lower than –10°C. It hardly ever does here, making it much more comfortable). Using the solar equipment, we can easily do some observing 24/7.”
Are there any specific guidelines for Stargazing?
It’s important to let your eyes get adapted to the dark. If you do so, you’ll see even more stars and the Milky Way becomes more prominent. Even the faintest wisps of the auroras will be easier to see. It’s also important to dress warmly. We offer our guests winter arctic-suits that are really warm. Finally, we encourage people to ask us questions on anything that has to do with the night sky.
Can you see any stars/constellations/planets from Iceland which you can’t see elsewhere?
Not unless you live in the Southern hemisphere. Those who live in the Northern hemisphere, at a similar latitude, share the same sky. Therefore, we see the same stars, constellations and planets as oth-ers in northern Europe. However, we are ideally located to see the Northern lights, something people in more southerly latitudes hardly ever or never see. Although we don’t train our telescopes towards them, simply because they’re too widespread over the sky, they truly are a beautiful sight to see.
If the auroras appear while we are observing, we stop and enjoy the view, try to educate people about the auroras and help them take pictures.
Are there any astronomical events you will only be able to witness in Iceland (or outside of the UK at least) which we should be aware of coming up? Are any of these an annual occurrence?
The next few years will be a bit quiet with regards to big celestial events like eclipses. The next total lunar eclipse will be in January 2019. Fortunately, the sky is pretty big so we never run out of interesting objects to look at.
Every year we follow some meteor showers. The best one for us is the Geminids in the middle of December. Weather permitting, keep a close eye on them. On a really good night, you might see roughly a hundred shooting stars per hour.
Tell us a little about your society’s involvement with Hotel Rangá and how your presence there works in practice? i.e. how often are you or another member of the team there, how long do you spend with clients, what do you teach them?
The amateur astronomical society has been instrumental in building the observatory. A couple of years ago, Fridrik the owner of Hotel Rangá introduced this idea to us. We were ecstatic, as we had been trying to build our own observatory somewhere outside the city lights. We chose the equipment (telescopes, eye-pieces, all the equipment) and had our say in how the observatory should be constructed (roll-off roof, height of walls etc). We even moved our telescope, the largest one in Iceland, from the light pollution in Reykjavík to the clear skies of Rangá. This truly is the best place to be. We’ll try and be there every clear night for observing. We have spent anywhere from 2 hours to 4 hours with people in the observatory, sometimes longer if any-one wishes to. There’s no limit, just what guests want. I am there personally as much as I possibly can.
What do guests do?
We show them the best objects and try and teach them something about what they are seeing, be it the Moon, a planet or some far away cluster, nebulae or a galaxy. If a new comet appears, we’ll of course point the telescopes to it. We also tell people about the myths in the night sky, Icelandic, Greek/Roman, even African.
Can you outline a couple of your lovely brief stories offering an explanation for a particular alignment of the stars?
Are these known worldwide or unique “astro sagas” for Iceland?
We offer guided to tours of the night sky. By that I mean I point out the what we are seeing with a laser pointer and tell people about the myths, legends and history of the constellations. The sky is full of not only stars but lovely stories, some of them unique for Iceland but most of them are known worldwide. By telling some of these stories, the sky becomes alive and I believe afterwards people are more open and eager to learn the science.
My favorite myth is the story of queen Cassiopeia, king Cepheus (the only husband-and-wife among the constellations) and their daughter Andromeda. All of these constellations are prominent and easy to see in the night sky.
One day, the story goes, Cassiopeia was combing her hair, looking in the mirror and said that she was the most beautiful woman in the world, even more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs. The Nereids did not like that and sought revenge, so they asked the sea god Poseidon to punish Cassiopeia for her vanity.
Poseidon duly obliged and sent a terrible sea monster (the constellation Cetus) that ravaged the coast of Cepheus’s kingdom. To appease the monster, Cepheus was told that he had to sacrifice his daughter, Andromeda. One day he chained her by the sea and waited for the monster to eat her. However, before the monster could eat her, Andromeda was saved by the hero Perseus, who had just come from a mission to kill a Gorgon called Medusa (who had hair made out of snakes and was so ugly that you turned into a stone if you looked into her eyes). Perseus killed the monster, rescued Andromeda and they lived, of course, happily ever after.
All of these constellations are right next to each other in the night sky and very easy to point out. Many people recognize this story, which is even better.”