MHCC Planetarium Director: Seeing Stars from African Desert is 'Magical'

Posted April 11, 2012 

Pat Hanrahan
time exposure photo of Conical Hill under moonlight by Pat Hanrahan
Pat Hanrahan atop one of the sandstone hilltops that he hiked each day. There are no established trails (except for animal paths). Every now and then, he would spook animals on his way up the hills. 

As a small boy, Pat Hanrahan caught the astronomy bug while viewing a 22-inch Sputnik soaring across the dark sky in 1957 with the help of his uncle's hand-made telescope. This fascination with the stars brought the Mt. Hood Community College Planetarium director to the Sossoveli Desert Lodge in Namibia last fall to increase his knowledge about the southern sky while teaching astronomy to tourists.

Hanrahan was one of the few hand-picked faculty from colleges and universities around the world for the lodge's 10-week astronomy program. Working primarily at night, Hanrahan was able to partake in one of his favorite hobbies – astrophotography – photographing constellations and single stars. "One of the reasons the lodge chose me hinged on my familiarity with their 12-inch Meade LX200 telescope," Hanrahan explained. "I have the same telescope at home, so I felt comfortable with the lodge's equipment while helping their guests view the stars."

Seeing Southern Stars in Person is Magical

Hanrahan traveled to Namibia to learn the southern sky.  "We can see 45 degrees below the equator, but we can't see the Southern Cross from here," said Hanrahan. "Talking about the different stars and southern constellations is one thing; seeing and exploring them in person is magical. For example, the Tarantula Nebula in the largest Magellanic Cloud – it is comprised of knots of gas and looks like a can of worms surrounded by nebulae. It's a very active star formation – one star was recently discovered to be 200 times the mass of the sun, sending physicists everywhere back to their calculators to understand why it hasn't blown up!"

time exposure photo of Conical Hill under moonlight by Pat Hanrahan
Pat Hanrahan atop the Petrified Dunes with one of the tallest hills he climbed in the background. Leopards roam this area.. 

During the day, Hanrahan took advantage of the majestic beauty in the area by hiking for hours on zebra trails into the mountains where he could "see forever." He described it as magical being all by himself with everything covered in sandstone.  "Then all of a sudden, I would accidentally surprise some animals and a thunderous sound would rise up, sending animals running away as a huge cloud of dust followed them."

Hanrahan said he considers himself a lucky man because he had the opportunity to see these stars in person, not just read about them.

"I went to Namibia to learn, but I also went to teach," he added. Teaching and guiding small, intimate groups of foreigners from Europe, South Africa, United States, Australia and New Zealand, Hanrahan went to the deep sky to show them star clusters and easy-to-see interesting patterns and constellations. Group members were particularly interested in looking at the planets Jupiter, Saturn and the moon.

One guest in particular, an astrophysicist, changed careers and went into money management so he could afford a trip to the lodge. "He was like a kid in a candy store who finally was able to see what he had been working on for so many years," Hanrahan said.

Much like the kid who saw Sputnik in 1957.


Written by Barbara Kousens, MHCC student 

Pat Hanrahan, MHCC planetarium director, will present a live  sky show from the MHCC Planetarium May 7. Click HERE for more information. 

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 Last Modified: 4/18/2012 09:43:13 AM