People watching a lunar eclipse from the Givatayim Observatory’s observation terrace. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90
No matter where you stand on Planet Earth, when you look up you’ll see the same sky. Yet star-gazing in Israel is a special way to add some fun and education to your travel itinerary.
Shows and guided tours in English are available at several star observatories and planetariums. In addition, two US-raised astronomers offer English-speaking nighttime sky tours in some of Israel’s most breathtaking desert landscapes.
New Jersey resident Susan Alpert tells ISRAEL21c that she heard from a friend about Ira “Star Man” Machefsky’s telescope tours of the Negev sky over Mitzpeh Ramon. She booked it right away for a trip to Israel that she and her husband planned with another couple six months later. They were not disappointed.
“My highlight was seeing the Milky Way,” Alpert says. “It was unbelievable. And we also saw a star ‘nursery’ of new stars just starting to twinkle. It opened your eyes to things you see but you don’t see.”
Ethan Schwartz’s portable What’s Up Observatory features a large computerized telescope. Dark Sky Tours – conducted in his favorite spot just outside Eilat, or anywhere else clients ask him to set up – provide a close-up encounter with constellations, intergalactic globular clusters, double stars, shooting stars, nebulae, planets, the moon and sometimes even other galaxies, depending on the season and time of night.
Schwartz tells ISRAEL21c that seeing stars from Israel has its advantages.
“We’re further south than, say, American skies, and there is one star we can see that was the first star used to prove the earth was round,” he relates. “It’s not visible in Greece, but you can see it from Jerusalem.”
Roni Muallem, director of the Harry Kay Observatory and planetarium in Hadera, tells ISRAEL21c that when Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in 1994, “we were the first to see it. Not because we have better telescopes, but because we were in the best place at the best time,” he says. “In this longitude, there are not so many observatories.”
The Kay observatory is the largest one in Israel that is open to the public. (The bigger Wise Observatory is a professional astronomical research facility in Mitzpeh Ramon owned by Tel Aviv University.) An English-speaking guide can be booked for groups of 15 or more; call 972-4-633-3505.
Opened in 2006 on the grounds of Hadera’s Technoda interactive science museum, Kay boasts a computerized telescope with a 16-inch lens. Its advanced automatic system recognizes and tracks tens of thousands of stars and celestial bodies. A video camera can be attached to transmit real-time pictures of the faraway sky directly to “star-struck” audiences in Technoda’s auditorium.
Naturally, one can see the stars only after dark, but the observatory has two smaller telescopes equipped with filters to allow observation of the sun and its solar eruptions.
Muallem – who built his own telescope when he was a kid and was an instructor at the Givatayim Observatory at age 13, long before earning graduate degrees from the Weizmann Institute of Science – explains that right now there’s not much to see on the sun. “Usually you’re looking for sun spots, which appear cyclically, peaking every 11 years,” he says.
Israel’s original place to see the stars is the Givatayim Observatory on top of a hill in Second Aliyah Park in this Tel Aviv suburb. The main Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope inside the dome is dedicated to researchers, but smaller telescopes on an observation terrace are set up for public viewings every Tuesday and Thursday night at 8.
Oded Avraham of the Israel Astronomical Association tells ISRAEL21, “There’s usually someone who speaks English and can show you around the Givatayim Observatory. Best call about an hour-plus before your visit to make sure.” (972-3-573-1152)
The Bareket Observatory in Maccabim-Modi’in boasts Emerald planetarium digital projectors, a live Internet remote telescope and astronomical live webcasts. The Maaleh Adumim ORT Observatory is open to the public once a month. English-language tours are arranged several times a year.
Planetariums project the nighttime sky
The Planetarium at the Eretz Israel Museum offers an Imax-like 3D presentation that visitors experience in revolving seats. On the domed ceiling, ancient and nascent galaxies and stars appear through the virtual lenses of the world’s most advanced telescopes.
Fun animation introduces you to astronomy and the origins of myths about the stars. You’ll also see a presentation about Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, and real-time NASA pictures of outer space. To order tickets for English performances for individuals and groups, call 972-3-745-5710/720.
Technoda’s more modest planetarium lets visitors experience the ideal night sky, along with explanations about the stars and galaxies. Advanced stargazers can add meridian lines, celestial equator, and ecliptic plane to the night sky simulation. Special projectors can also superimpose on the simulated sky video clips showing Greek mythology stories and the planets. Muallem suggests booking English tours in advance.
By the way, “Starman” Machefsky offers a free nighttime sky session (http://israel21c.org/travel/