Astronomy from an airplane window en route to tropical isles

View out the plane window over the Pacific Ocean en route to Hawaii. Above the moonlit clouds “new” southern constellations like Phoenix, Grus and Indus came into view. Details: 16mm , f/2.8, ISO 800 and 25-second exposure. Credit: Bob King

A week ago my wife and I traveled to paradise which also goes by the name of Maui, one of the Hawaiian islands. We were there to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary toasting with Mai Tais between snorkeling, eating and hiking and thousand other things you can do on the island.

A beautiful glory or series of colored rings of light around the shadow of the airplane as it ascended from the Minneapolis airport. Glories are created by light scattered backwards from water droplets in the clouds below. They’re always visible directly opposite the sun, so if you’re seated on the shadow side of the plane when it breaks through the clouds, chances are good you’ll see one. See wide view below. Credit: Bob King

Whenever I travel I keep an eye on the sky; Maui, at latitude 21 degrees north, offered a whole new perspective. That’s practically southern hemisphere compared to my home town Duluth, Minn. at 47 degrees north.

Wide view of a glory seen from the airplane window as the plane gained elevation. Click to learn more about glories. Credit: Bob King

Luckily I got a window seat on the trip from LA to Hawaii. As the plane followed the Earth’s curve south, new stars otherwise hidden by the southern horizon crept into view. The waning gibbous moon illuminated clouds far below us that blanketed the dark ocean.

Scrunching my face against the window I could see Grus the Crane, Indus the Indian and even Alpha Pavonis, the brightest star of the Pavo the Peacock. Later that night before going to bed, brilliant Achernar – the star at the end of the river Eridanus – twinkled low over the lulling waves of the Pacific.

Venus is much higher in the Hawaiian sky compared to mid-latitudes and shines brilliantly long after dusk. Here’s it reflected in the Pacific Ocean – firelight lights the foamy edge of a wave. Credit: Bob King

Venus was much higher in the sky than seen in Duluth and shone with amazing brilliance in a black sky long after sunset. Many restaurants served dinner cafe-style in the open air, making the planet a constant companion over fish tacos and macadamia nut desserts.

Lunar halo with palm trees last week on Maui. Credit: Bob King

Familiar constellations like the Northern Cross, Lyra and Aquila that compose the Summer Triangle were all kittywampus, tilted over to the north at a alien angle. The Big Dipper? Gone. No need to look – it lay hidden below the northern horizon. Polaris the North Star stood just 21 degrees (two fists) high in the north, equal to the Maui’s latitude. Seeing it reduced to palm tree level brought home how far we’d traveled across the planet.

Sirius (top) and Canopus in the dawn sky from Maui. They’re the first and second brightest stars in the heavens. Credit: Bob King

Because of the drastic time change coming from the Midwest (5 hours) we constantly arose fully awake around 5 a.m. local time, perfect for catching Jupiter overhead and Orion nearly as high. I thrilled to seeing Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, sparkle in the southern sky as dawn approached.

This star is always hidden from view unless you live in the southern U.S. or points south.

As long as we were awake, a stroll on the beach at sunrise was too easy to pass up. We faced west – good for sunsets only – but watching the moon’s reflection in the water as Earth’s purple shadow faded withdrew from the western horizon with the advancing sun was fine compensation.

The Earth’s shadow “sets” over the Pacific with the moon following shortly before sunrise last week from Maui. Credit: Bob King

Coming home is always difficult when you fall in love with a place. I’m still trying to get back into my time zone and both of us constantly feel cold. I wonder why. Gone are Grus, Pavo and Canopus. But to experience a different part of the stellar universe for a few nights was a joy. And now I’m inspired to do it all over again.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

26 thoughts on “Astronomy from an airplane window en route to tropical isles

  1. Congratulations! 45 Yeats for my wife Pat and I as we visit friends on Maui in January. It’s our 4th trip to paradise, and I’m sure you will return! Thanks for the great blog!

  2. Congratulations to you and your wife on your first 25 years !

    Many thanks for the great photos from your trip and also the great selection of images in previous posts.

    That photo from the plane numbs the mind. How did you ever get the kids in the seat behind you to stay still for that long !?!

    BTW … sunsets and beaches are pretty nice too … ;-)

    Your Blog is one of the best.

    Thanks again and congrats !!!

  3. Thanx for this awaited article Bob and congratulations.

    I appreciate particularly the pics from airplane because I know they aren’t easy. In my latest airplan trip I tried to shoot in the night but the reflection of the internal lights on the window glass maked it impossible. So how did you avoid the problem for the first pic you shared? If I understand right it wasn’t shoot at sunset but at night. Also wondering, how you took a 25 second exposure though the airplane vibrations and small window (how did you put the tripod on your seat?) Thanx

    • Hi Giorgio,
      Your are very right about how hard it is to shoot through a plane window at night. I shot maybe 25 frames to get one or two that worked. It helped that they dimmed the cabin lights – that reduced the reflections. No tripod was used. I wedged the camera hard against the window and molded plastic around the window – kind of “locked it” into position. Luckily there was no turbulence when that particular picture was taken. I have plenty of bad ones where the camera slid or my hands weren’t completely steady.

  4. Checking my old star atlas again I found a fairly close conjunction of a bright star with a comet. Brewington, listed now as the 6th brightest comet should be somewhere around 1.5 degrees north of the star Alpha in Aquarius on Saturday evening Nov. 2. The star is listed as magnitude 2.9. I am guessing that the comet would be an easy sight in a 6 inch telescope.

    • Edward,
      I saw the comet near Alpha two nights ago. It’s actually fairly faint still at 11th magnitude and little condensed. In my 15-inch it was dim patch about 3 minutes in diameter.

  5. Hi Bob! What a great perspective! I certainly didn’t notice the stars when I was there. I can’t wait to hear about the trip, and what you and Linda liked the most. Congrats on 25 years! That takes work, and mutal commitment. What a great reward (besides the marriage of course!)

  6. Thanks so much for posting. We had the same experience when we flew to Hawaii. We looked out the window of the plane, and even though it was around 2pm (Hawaii time) – basically the middle of a sunny afternoon – the sky above the plane was almost completely BLACK. We’ve always wondered if we were looking at outer space?? There was a definite line between the blue sky and the black sky, and I believe that we were flying at around 40,000 feet or higher at the time (Delta plane – not sure what model but it was the big one with three rows of seats.)

    Thanks again for the great photos!

    KC News

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