OFA flag. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA-A. Golemis

OFA flag. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA-A. Golemis

Stargazing and astrophotography have always generated deep feelings in me. It was the main reason that I joined the Amateur Astronomy Club of Thessaloniki (OFA), where I enjoyed many sleepless nights watching the skies and pondering when Betelgeuse might explode as a supernova, bathing the Earth in light perhaps as strong as the Moon’s. Now the OFA flag is waving at the extreme south too.

Yet in the wilderness of Concordia it is harder than I thought to enjoy stargazing and produce good quality photos. The temperature was -60°C on our first stargazing attempt and has fallen to -75°C since. At these temperatures, even if dressed in your entire polar equipment (it took us 20 minutes to fully-prepare before exiting the base), fingers and toes start to freeze after merely 20 minutes outside. It is remarkable how frost penetrates three pairs of gloves to attack the most vulnerable spots on your skin, the limbs that are have less blood circulation. A silent enemy.

On top of that, our masks quickly blur our vision, as our respiration humidifies and freezes. I could not resist but remove my mask to capture a glimpse of the glory of the world’s darkest skies. Soon though my eyelashes freeze as well – and if you use contact lenses there is always the risk of them freezing to your eye.

Our cameras suffer equally. Battery life is reduced to 40 minutes, while my tripod became rigid rapidly after exiting the Station. Soon aiming the camera became impossible and the screen also gave way. We went inside every 15 minutes to warm up the equipment and ourselves! I remember my skin being “burned” when I foolishly touched my camera bare-handed. It takes quite a long time for its metal parts to reach room temperature after exposure to the outside cold.

The only good solution to achieve quality pictures of the sky from Antarctica seems to be teleoperation. Creating a wooden box with an internal heater for the camera and using a wire to operate it from the cosy interior of the base is our new priority. Apologies for not decorating this article with more impressive celestial photos.

I will never forget great moments of ecstasy when walking on the ice under the total blackness of the sky. My eyes strive to recognise familiar patterns – the southern constellations, Estrellas do Sul as my friends called them during my first encounter with the Southern Sky in Brazil. I always liked how this sounds.

Lunar encounter with our flags. Credits:ESA/IPEV/PNRA-A. Golemis

Lunar encounter with our flags. Credits:ESA/IPEV/PNRA-A. Golemis

The celestial dome above us is so translucent that thousands of luminous points litter it with light. The most prominent stand next to those that you probably cannot view anywhere else on Earth with the naked eye. It took me long to recognise the Southern Cross and I did confuse it with the False Cross (δ Velorum, κ Velorum, ι Carinae, ε Carinae), even though I was already knew about this common misidentification. Next I saw the Pointers (α Centauri or Rigil and β Centauri or Hadar), which as I learned in the online astronomy course of Haritina Mogosanu, can be used together with the Southern Cross to spot the South Celestial Pole (you can find more about this course here: https://stargazing.xperts.co.nz/).

In the North, the pole is marked quite accurately by a major star, Polaris (α Ursa Minoris), but here in the South the only stellar marker is the rather dim (as seen from the Earth) σ Octantis.

Regor, Canopus and Achemar were there too, shining bright, but I felt a particular affection when I spotted Sirius, a “familiar face” for us citizens of the Northern Hemisphere. It seemed like this twinkling star together with its companion, Procyon, had travelled all the way to the extreme South of the world with me. I felt content with this thought.

Later I recognised Fomalhaut, a major star in the constellation of Pisces, and I remembered my good friend Panagiotis with whom I made my first stargazing trips. On a clear night like this, but very far away, we had used this star to align our telescope with the sky – the next day we learned that an exoplanet was detected orbiting around it. Stay tuned – more on Astronomy soon!

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