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Night Flight - Airplane Astronomy

Night Flight-Airplane Astronomy

By Eric Adams (TravelAstro@cs.com.)

Perhaps the ultimate form of traveling astronomy is astronomy while traveling-literally. I once spent about one hour and 300 miles exploring Jupiter and Saturn from a Boeing 777 flying across the Midwest. I was armed only with a pair of compact 10x28 binoculars and a little airline-provided blanket to drape over my head and block out stray light, but the views I had were surprisingly satisfying. I could see the Jovian moons very well, and get hints of Saturn's rings. I could also patrol random star fields and identify which constellations I was looking at, or just enjoy the view without the binoculars.

Indeed, when you think about it, airplane astronomy has numerous interesting advantages, foremost among them altitude. Cruising at 30,000 feet puts you higher than the highest observatory in the world. Only the Hubble Space Telescope contends with less atmospheric turbulence. Another advantage is the absence of light pollution. Though you can see urban centers below you, their impact is minimal and, at 500 miles per hour, you tend to get past them fairly quickly. All of this allows for some rather dark, star-rich views from a warm, cozy cabin.

So how do you make the most of your time cruising the upper atmosphere? Here are a few pointers:

  1. Seat selection. Obviously, you want a window seat. Select the side based on what direction you're flying so you can get the view you want. If, for example, you're heading from New York to Miami on a December evening, pick the left side of the cabin (A seats) to see Jupiter and Saturn rise in the east. And try to sit in front of the wing or on top of it, to block light from below. If you're behind the wing, you might see too much of the flashing red light mounted on the wingtip. Finally, try to get a seat that has the window positioned just a bit toward the back of the seat, so you can recline a little bit and be well-centered. You can't make that call until you get on the plane, obviously, but if your flight is less than full you might be able to move.
  2. Airplane selection. You probably aren't going to go out of your way to choose a flight with a specific kind of airplane just on the off chance that you might be able to do some observing on the flight, but people have done crazier things. Right now, the best airplane from which to observe the night sky is the Boeing 777, which boasts the largest windows ever uilt into a commercial jet. And because they're new airplanes, they'll likely have fewer scratches than, say, a 737. Some of those windows have been sandblasted for years.
  3. Viewing aids. Small binoculars are about your only option on aircraft. I once toyed with the idea of taking my 80mm scope out of my carry-on, but shelved it right away as not only impractical but also sort of silly looking. I do have my dignity.
  4. Comfort. Again, go for big windows and a reclining seat. Otherwise, you'll have to be creative about contorting your neck and back to get a good view. Don't stay too long in one position if it's uncomfortable. You'll only end up very sore. If you have a row to yourself, use it to stretch out a little bit. And use the blankets they give you to cover your head and keep out the cabin lights.
  5. Be alert for the flight attendants so you don't miss your mini pretzels and half-Cokes.

That should get you started. Of course, you won't be able to do any comet hunting or variable-star observations, but you will get a free (sort of) fix of the night sky from a unique vantage point. If nothing else, it'll make tedious night-time flights pass all the faster.


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