To the average Reykjavíking, the stars are nothing special. While travellers from bigger cities are often awestruck when they gaze upon our winter sky—doubly so if the Northern Lights are out—we’ll nod and stare at our phones some more. I’m a very average Reykjavíking, a jaded city rat, and there’s nothing up there I haven’t seen before. Thus, when I find myself tasked with accompanying photographer Anna Domnick on a stargazing venture late one night in early September (for the sake of journalism!), I’m not particularly thrilled.
But I power through anyway. For journalism.
Our destination is Hótel Rangá, a little over an hour’s drive out of Reykjavík, where members of Stjörnuskoðunarfélag Seltjarnarness (the Amateur Astronomical Society of Seltjarnarnes) go to gawk at the skies, away from Reykjavík’s light pollution. During the pleasant drive up, I learn from Anna that we’re in luck, as the night offers some of the best stargazing conditions one could hope for, with clear skies and the season’s first truly cold weather.
And then, the moment I step out of the car, I’m blown away. Free from the city lights, I’m faced with what seems like thousands of brilliant astral bodies, before my very eyes! The Milky Way itself is clearly visible, in that vibrant manner you usually only see on photographs, which I always assumed to be doctored and exaggerated. It is amazing.
We are met by our guide for the night, Sævar Helgi Bragason, who heads the society. He tells us a little about about what they do and who they are. Their board is composed of a scientist from the university, a coast guard administrator, a graphic designer, and two carpenters—all of them amateurs with a passion for the stars. He then explains that they have just installed two new apochromatic refractor telescopes at this very site, which are the most precise in all of Iceland.
Sævar leads us to a foldable roofed cabin, about 150 metres away from the hotel, and proceeds to give me and five other visitors a quick guide to the night sky. He tells us that a total of 5,000 stars are visible to the naked eye from Earth, while our galaxy contains some 400 billion. Looking through the telescope, I see the Dumbbell Nebula, 1,360 light years away. It looks like a faint astral doughnut. Then I see the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, and then M81 and M82, a spiral and starburst galaxy some 12 million light years away.
Like ‘Battlestar Galactica’’s Brother Cavil, I curse the gelatinous orbs in my skull, which only capture a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. I don’t want to be human! I want to see the countless unseen worlds that are hidden in what we humans perceive as darkness! I want to smell the dark matter—I want to see the true colours of the universe!
While this temporary Cylon insanity washes over me, Anna and the astronomers are hard at work taking long-exposure photos. I eventually get back to marvelling at what’s in front of me. The stars shimmer amazingly overhead. Satellites lazily slide across the cloudless sky. Tiny particles burn up in the atmosphere, appearing as shooting stars. Northern Lights faintly appear and fade away, amazing the group of tourists nearby. The moon sets, and after a while I can tell the whole sky has turned a few degrees.
Three hours pass, with hardly a word spoken between me, Anna, and the astronomers. And then, once my toes are sufficiently frozen, we head back.
Weeks later, I’m once again firmly entrenched in Reykjavík’s hustle and bustle. Every once in a while, though, I look back up to the stars and am reminded of how much is out there, and how incredibly little we know about it all.
The Amateur Astronomical Society of Seltjarnarnes can be found at Hótel Rangá on any night that offers the right weather conditions. Visitors can step into their cabin, free of charge, and get a tour of the night sky. Learn more at www.astro.is, or Like or their Facebook page.