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Observing the unknown from Korea’s peaks

Jan 11,2012
A circuit of stars captured by a digital camera at the Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory. [JoongAng Ilbo]
Seven-year-old Lee Eun-hye looks through a telescope at the Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang, earlier this month.
Children look up at the “5-D Dome Picture Tube” at the Bohyeon Mountain Science Museum, located just beneath the observatory. [JoongAng Ilbo]
Mount Bohyeon in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang, may not be the tallest mountain in Korea - but it could be the best location for gazing at the stars.

With no major cities nearby polluting the atmosphere and clear skies all year round, the Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory, which includes a 1.8-meter reflecting telescope (the longest such telescope in Korea), was constructed near the peak.

The telescope marked a turning point in Korean astronomical studies, allowing for detailed observation of comets and galaxies.

During a recent trip to Mount Bohyeon, I was able to look through the famed telescope. The Cassiopeia Constellation, shaped like a “W,” half shrouded in the Milky Way, came into clear focus.

Every star has a story or legend behind it. People, too, have personal narratives describing how they became interested in astronomy. Park Yun-ho, a researcher at the Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory, began his relationship with the stars back in his college years.

After majoring in physics, the researcher said the stars’ mysticism soon led to him becoming an astronomer. He has worked at the observatory for 14 years.

He is not alone in his quest to understand the universe. According to the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, there are 10,000 amateur observers in Korea as well as 50 official and 50 unofficial observatories.

Like my experience at the Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory, anyone with an interest in the stars can visit one of these locations and dive into the wondrous abyss of astronomy.

The Bohyunsan Observatory

It was freezing cold when I arrived at the observatory, but fortunately the snow had been cleared from the roads. Winter time, when the temperature and humidity are low, is the perfect time to observe the stars.

“One winter 10 years ago, there was so much snow that no one could reach the observatory,” Park, the researcher, said. “After that incident, we’ve made sure to shovel the snow immediately after it falls.”

The observatory’s efforts worked for me. I had arrived at the best observing site in all of Korea, Park assured me.

“For nine years, the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute searched nationwide to find a mountain for a suitable observatory location,” Park said. “In 1995, four mountains were nominated and considered for about a year. Finally Mount Bohyeon was the call.”

Public entrance is limited, as this famed observatory was built for research. It is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the winter season. During the rest of the year, only researchers are permitted to enter.

The 1.8-meter reflecting telescope, however, is shown to the public more often. It is on display at the Yeongcheon Bohyeon Mountain Starlight Festival and is accessible from April to June and September to August.

Stars for the family

In Korea, 15 first-magnitude, or brightest, stars can typically be observed. During winter, however, only seven of these first-magnitude stars can be seen in this observatory.

With the observatory closing relatively early, amateurs who want to stay longer often camp out at the observatory’s parking lot to gaze at the stars throughout the night.

Families can also take advantage of the Bohyeon Mountain Science Museum, located just beneath the observatory, which is run by the Yeongcheon City Government.

The museum offers a casual atmosphere in which the public can experience astronomical phenomena.

The museum is open from 2 to 10 p.m. and usually takes an hour to see it in its entirety. At the “5-D Dome Picture Tube,” one can sit down for around 20 minutes and travel virtually throughout outer space. The abrupt movements of the electric chairs will even make adults’ hearts jump.

A robot that dances along to the song “Nobody” by girl group Wonder Girls is another popular highlight of the space exhibit.

The second floor of the museum is for observing stars. A class teaching astronomical observation by Cho Hyun-min, a Bohyunsan Optical Astronomy Observatory researcher, is offered every hour.

“There are a lot of family group spectators during the winter break,” Cho said.

Stargazing in the winter is a perfect opportunity to connect with family members and place the daily grind in a larger perspective. If you can withstand the frigid temperatures, spend a weekend observing the unknown from Korea’s peaks.

Top astronomy sites in Korea

Byeolmaro Observatory

The Byeolmaro Observatory is famous as the location for the filming of “Radio Star” (2006). The observatory is at the peak of Bongrae Mountain in Gangwon. In a given year, some 192 days typically have clear skies perfect for star gazing. For more information, go to www.yao.or.kr

Center of Korea Observatory

The Center of Korea Observatory is located right at the center of the country - Yanggu County, Gangwon. Images of the earth and other astronomy-related photos and videos are shown every hour. For more information, go to www.ckobs.kr

The SongAm Space Center

This center, a theme park that has several activities related to astronomy, is located in Yangju, Gyeonggi. There is a program that allows one to experience space activities including the procedures of astronauts aboard the United States space shuttle Challenger that exploded in 1986. For more information, go to www.starsvalley.com

By Na Won-jeong [estyle@joongang.co.kr]