Between Us and the Stars

The Taiwan Dark-Sky Preservation Alliance

2019 / June

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Phil Newell

“Space, the final frontier.” These are the words, familiar to science fiction fans the world over, that opened each epi­sode of the TV show Star Trek, poetically intoned by Captain James T. Kirk. Through the power of imagination, in science fiction films we have long traveled among the stars and even accepted aliens who settle on planet Earth. But the explor­ation of space and an understanding of astronomy really start with individual amateur astronomers, who have spent countless sleepless nights observing the universe. One star at a time, they have pieced together the positions of heavenly bodies, and bit by bit they have uncovered the mysteries of space.

The Lu­lin Observatory stands at an altitude of 2862 meters on Front Mt. Lu­lin, just outside the boundary of Yu­shan National Park. Operated by National Central University, it has Taiwan’s largest-diameter optical telescope—the Lulin One-meter Telescope (LOT). Besides being a bastion of astronomical observations in Taiwan, it is also involved in many international astronomy programs.

It takes a six-hour drive from Taipei to reach the trailhead for the observatory. After unloading our gear, we still have to hike about 600 meters to get to the white observa­tory buildings; this is one of the few observatories in the world that cannot be reached by motor vehicle.

Stargazing year round

Observatory director Lin Hung-chin accompanies us ­every step of the way. He is deeply familiar with this locale not only because it is his current workplace, but also because in 1990, while still a graduate student, Lin worked with his faculty advisor, Professor Tsay Wean-shun, on the search for an observatory site. “Northern Taiwan is strongly impacted by the northeasterly seasonal monsoons, while in southern Taiwan there are southwesterly airflows, so we decided that the most appropriate site would be in central Taiwan,” explains Lin. “In addition, observatories are normally built on high mountains, to avoid inter­ference from clouds at 1000 to 2000 meters.”

Life at the observatory is simple and highly regulated. Besides Director Lin Hung-chin, there are also two observers, Lin Chi-­sheng and ­Hsiao Hsiang-­yao, as well as four Aboriginal assistants who are responsible for maintaining operations at the observatory, ensuring that so long as the weather is good, observations can be made 365 nights a year.

Nighttime observation time is very precious. Use of the LOT is open to researchers inside and outside Taiwan, who tender observation plans; timeslots are assigned after evalu­ation of these plans. But after all, the weather is variable, so it may easily happen that someone is given a timeslot on a specific day, but observations can’t be made because of poor weather. This line of work is a classic case of “making one’s living at the mercy of the elements.”

Lin Hung-chin explains that overall, Taiwan’s conditions for astronomical observation are not bad, with observations being possible on about half the days of the year. Moreover, because the observatory is located at a low latitude, the visible area of sky includes most of the southern celestial hemisphere, which is an advantage compared to high-latitude countries. In addition, says Lin, Lu­lin is located in the first line of observation stations along the western rim of the Pacific Ocean, so if the big astronomical arrays in Hawaii detect some special target, the Lu­lin Observatory can confirm and observe it in a timely manner.

Besides observing the stars, a fringe benefit of being stationed here is that you can often see “majestic views.”

After a night of observing, the sun is just rising from behind Yu­shan. ­Hsiao Hsiang-­yao does not stop to admire the sunrise, but rather takes us to look westward into the distance. He says that when the weather is good it is possible to see the shadow of the earth, and indeed along the western horizon there appears a thin layer of indescribable blue that is intoxicatingly beautiful.

The main focus of stargazing

The development of astronomy in Taiwan can be traced back to the era of Japanese rule, but the building of the LOT by National Central University’s Institute of Astro­nomy represented a major breakthrough for astronomical observa­tion in Taiwan. It also created numerous opportuni­ties to take part in international collaborative programs, such as the Taiwan-America Occultation Survey (TAOS), the Pan-STARRS program (in colloboration with the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and the US Air Force), the Taiwan Supernovae Survey, and the East Asian Gamma Ray Burst Follow-up Network (EAFoN).

For many years now, the detection and observation of asteroids has been a focal point of astronomical research. Asteroids are mainly distributed in a belt between Ju­piter and Mars. Lin Hung-chin explains that asteroids are fragments left behind from the formation of the solar system, comparing them to flour left over after baking a loaf of bread. The crashing of a comet into Jupiter in 1994 alerted astronomers to the pos­sibil­ity that something in space could crash into the Earth. It was then that astronomers started to keep an eye out for unknown threats from space.

The Lulin Observatory joined the ranks of observa­tories scanning the skies for asteroids, and since 2002 has discovered more than 800 of these celestial objects. In the vast reaches of space there are already many asteroids with names related to Taiwan, such as “Chen­shu­chu” (Asteroid No. 278986), “Wu­da­you” (No. 256892), “Deng­yu­shian” (No. 255989), “Chiayi” (No. 147918), “Tsou” (No. 175586), and “Hehuanshan” (No. 207661).

Besides naming asteroids, a more important reason for searching them out is to take preventive measures in the event that Earth looks likely to be struck by an object from space. In the future, the main focus will be placed on asteroids with a diameter of 100 meters and above. Although an impact of this size would not mean the extinction of human life on Earth, it could cause the destruction of a city. Scientists are already devoting thought and creativity to devising responses to such an eventuality. ­Hsiao Hsiang-­yao laughs: “This is why you can also call us ‘guardians of Earth.’”

Links between man and the stars

There is also a community of amateur astronomers who scan the same skies and are equally fascinated by the boundlessness of interstellar space.

One of these enthusiasts is Liu Chih-an, president of the Tai­pei Amateur Astronomers Association and also founder and webmaster of the Facebook group the Taiwan Dark-Sky Preservation Alliance. He has enjoyed stargazing since childhood, and taught himself about the night sky by going to the library to read about astronomy. In order to better view the stars, he took a job at an optics company, where he learned a great deal about optics and telescopes. In over 30 years of space observation, he has become only the second observer in Asia to complete the “Messier Marathon” of sighting 110 heavenly bodies in one night. His colleagues call him “a human GoTo” (a GoTo is a type of telescope mount and software that can auto­matic­ally point a telescope at a selected celestial object)—he’s got a map of the stars in his brain, and says: “So long as the star appears, I can find it.”

“Mankind’s fascination with space is human nature,” says Liu Chih-an. We watch as he sets up a tele­scope without any assistive tools, and turns it to find beautiful globular star clusters or scattered open star clusters. To the naked eye, many heavenly bodies are just points of light, but through the telescope one can see the craters on the moon, the various zones and belts of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the rings of Saturn, while celestial objects tens of thousands of light years away become visible; it’s an amazing experience. Liu is also happy to share his know­ledge with others. When we went with him to Yuan­feng Peak on Mt. He­huan, he met some visitors from Singa­pore, and generously invited them to look into the eyepiece of his telescope and explore the astronomical realm.

Protecting the darkness

The starry skies have become an indispensable map in the life of Liu Chih-an. But it has been another road al­together on this map that has unexpectedly taken him from observing the stars to combating light pollution.

In 2013, the Nan­tou County Government placed an LED commemorative marker on Yuan­feng Peak. This led to the banding together of a group of astro­nomy afi­cion­ados to save Mt. Hehuan’s stargazing environ­ment from the imminent threat of light pollution.

Liu points to the example of the small town of Lake Te­kapo in New Zealand as a successful example of the benefits of preventing light pollution. This little town, with only 300-400 residents, has become part of the world’s first “dark-sky reserve.” After gaining this certifica­tion, it began to receive visits from stargazers from all over the world, driving local “astro­tourism.”

Inspired by the ideas behind Lake Tekapo, in the name of promoting tourism Liu Chih-an and his colleagues began to educate local homestays in the Qing­jing area of Nan­tou’s Ren’ai Township about preventing light pollution. They also called on volunteers from the stargazer community to offer training in guiding visitors through the night sky, hoping that know­ledge related to astro­tourism would develop autonomously in the local area.

Liu Chih-an takes us to visit two homestays: Florence Resort Villa and Starry House. The two homestays use different lighting equipment, but each has devised clever ideas to reduce light pollution, such as painting the outsides of their garden lamps black or reducing the wattage of their lights, in order to leave the night stage to the stars.

Public opinion often has it that a place is safe only if it is well lit, but Liu counters that excessive lighting can cause glare and blind spots. He and his co-campaigners by no means want to turn out all the lamps: their main focus is on “appropriate lighting.”

When the Nan­tou County Government saw the determination of this group of stargazers, it also committed itself to observing norms set by relevant outdoor lighting conventions. In July of 2018 Nan­tou County, in co­opera­tion with the Cing­jing Tourism Association and astro­nomy groups, applied to the International Dark-Sky Associ­ation (IDA) for certification for a proposed He­huan Mountain Dark-Sky Park.

In late 2018 the IDA came to Taiwan for a fact-finding visit. There is hope that Taiwan will be the third country in Asia to have a dark-sky park, following on from the Yeong­yang Firefly Eco Park in South Korea and the Iriomote-­Ishigaki National Park in Japan.

On April 1, 2019, Liu Chih-an announced on Facebook that he would retire from his job. This was no April Fools’ Day prank. He is retiring at the early age of 53 to devote himself entirely to preserving the beauty of the night sky for future generations. He is worried about the durability of current successes, for if there is no one to feed the fire in the future, “the flame will go out, and it will be very difficult to light it again,” he says.

Looking up at the vast sky filled with stars, so many light years distant from us, their beautiful forms became the focus of enchanting myths at the origins of civilization, and humans’ limitless curiosity about them has initiated our modern journey into the cosmos. But when we took a stargazing tour of our own, we discovered that the distance between us and the stars is not as far as you might imagine.                        

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