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Celestial Sightseeing


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During a total solar eclipse the sky turns dark blue and sunlight casts ripples on the ground as if it were the bottom of a swimming pool. Birds return to their roosts even though it's daytime, and the horizon flames orange-red. "It's so powerful, people start gasping and crying," says Jeffery Keffer, a lawyer from Arlington, Mass., who has traveled to the South Pole, Panama, Egypt, and South Africa to see the moon temporarily obliterate the view of the sun.

Celestial happenings such as eclipses, meteor showers, and comets have fostered a growing branch of travel called astro tourism. Participants range from space enthusiasts toting their own telescopes to novices who think the Corona Borealis is a beer.

Several companies specialize in astronomy travel. One of the best known is TravelQuest (tq-international.com), which partners with Sky & Telescope Magazine to set itineraries. Astronomers who write for the magazine accompany the tours, giving lectures and helping travelers sight stars and planets through telescopes. "In putting together trips, we try to find unique places to view" celestial events, says J. Kelly Beatty, executive editor of Sky & Telescope. He led a trip to Libya to see last year's solar eclipse soon after the country opened to Western tourists.

That same eclipse gave Keffer and his wife, Sue, a reason to go to Egypt. They viewed it from a high plateau overlooking the Mediterranean. "The corona was particularly stunning with orange tongues...spinning out from the edges," Keffer said. He and the others in his group wore Mylar glasses so they could safely look at the sun, and they toasted with champagne when it was over. The eclipse lasted about two hours. Also part of the trip were more typical excursions to the Sphinx and Pyramids in Giza as well as a Nile cruise to see the ruins and museums in Luxor, Aswan, and Abu Simbel.

ABOVE THE CLOUDS

Because total solar eclipses occur rarely and can be observed only in a narrow geographic area, tours to see them usually book up a year or two in advance. The next total solar eclipse is in August, 2008, when the moon's shadow will start in northern Canada, skirt the edge of Greenland, track through central Siberia, and end in northwest China. Most tours to view the event are to China and Russia. Costs range from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on the duration of the trip and type of accommodations.

Several tour operators are also offering cruises on icebreakers that will sail through Arctic waters to view the eclipse. Cabins for two start at $23,000. In addition, TravelQuest has chartered an Airbus A330 to fly to the North Pole for a look at 30,000 feet. All business- class seats have sold out at $13,380 each, but economy tickets for $4,440 to $10,800 are available. In 2003 the company chartered a plane to the South Pole to see an eclipse. "It was spectacular," says David Bloomfield, a corporate financial controller in Fair Lawn, N.J., who was on the flight. "From that high up you don't have to worry about clouds obscuring your view."

If you can't wait until 2008, lots of tours are scheduled in the meantime. MWT Associates (melitatrips.com) has a trip in August to an observatory in the Atacama Desert in Chile ($3,600), where you can view the sky through giant telescopes. TravelQuest has a trip to Iceland in October to see the Aurora Borealis ($2,750).

If you're not one for tours you can always visit Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii (ifa.hawaii.edu/mko/visiting.htm). At 13,800 feet, it's the highest point on all the Hawaiian islands and home to the world's largest astronomical observatory, with 13 working telescopes. The barren, volcanic terrain gives you a sense that you've traveled to another planet. Free stargazing programs led by the observatory's astronomers are held every night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Or you can check out two New Mexico astronomy retreats: the Starhill Inn (starhillinn.com) in Sapello or New Mexico Skies (nmskies.com) in Cloudcroft. Both have cozy cabins, state of the art equipment for viewing and photographing, and astronomers on hand. It's a vacation that will put stars in your eyes.

By Kate Murphy


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