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Sunday, April 8, 2001

Keeping your eyes on the skies

Staff writer

In November 1999, the Leonid meteor storm returned, brighter in the night skies than it had been for 33 years, prompting many to turn out to watch the spectacular celestial show.

But you needn't wait for a special astronomical event to enjoy observing the stars: Just visit the National Astronomical Observatory in western Tokyo.

Located some 15 minutes by bus from JR Mitaka or Musashi Sakai stations, the observatory is a center for astronomical researchers from both Japan and abroad. It tracks various astronomical objects and phenomena with its Subaru telescope, ranging from near-Earth objects in the solar system to distant stars and galaxies.

It also offers opportunities to learn about the stars: Although not widely advertised, free astronomical observation sessions are held at the observatory twice a month, on the Friday before the second and fourth Saturdays, 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Each session begins with an introductory lecture, in which the observatory's experts explain which stars can be seen that month and provide background information about each. This month the planets Jupiter and Saturn are shining bright in the western sky, close to the red star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, the Bull. Mars rises around midnight, while Venus can be seen, as usual, in the morning.

In the eastern sky, the "great spring triangle" of Arcturus, Spica and Denebola is conspicuous, while the "great winter triangle" of Procyon, Sirius and Betelgeuse is sliding away into the west. Only the brightest planets and stars are visible from downtown Tokyo except on the very clearest nights, but from Mitaka the visibility is better.

For actual observations, visitors are taken out to a domed observatory, where they can look at the stars using a 50-cm telescope.

The site is open to the public every day during the day, and visitors are free to walk around the grounds. A new museum (admission free) will open at the site later this month, featuring displays and videos on the history of astronomy and astronomical observatories.

For more information, call the National Astronomical Observatory Mitaka campus at (0422) 34-3600 or see the Web site at www.nao.ac.jp/index

Other campuses of the same observatory include those in Mizusawa, Norikura, Okayama, Nobeyama in Nagano and Hawaii.

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