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"Immersed in stardust": the astrobiologist teaching us to know our night sky

By India 11 Mar 2019

Hari Space Place v2

Not many of us can remember the exact moment that set us on the course for the rest of our lives. Astrobiologist Haritina Mogoșanu can.

She was about six years old, at home in her native Romania, and she asked her mum what a certain word meant. Her mum directed her towards the family’s encyclopaedia, a tome so heavy young Hari couldn’t even lift it on her own. Grudgingly, she started leafing through the pages.

“I was like, ‘Boring, boring, boring,’ and then I came across this page that had the life cycle of a star, and that was it. I was totally hooked. And I never recovered.”

Now, as senior science communicator at Space Place at Carter Observatory, Hari spends her days trying to get other people hooked as well. But the path to this dream job on the other side of the world wasn’t a straightforward one. In Romania, she explains, you had to choose your vocation at 13 years old, and her mum insisted she set her sights on a “proper job”. So she chose biology, going on to work as a horticultural engineer and then getting her master’s in environmental management.

Space Place 1

She might have continued on that track were it not for what she calls “the most defining moment of my life”. You see, here’s the funny thing: even though Hari spent her entire childhood and adolescence obsessed with stars, reading everything she could about them, the night sky remained a mystery to her. Her grandfather tried to show her particular stars and asterisms (the more correct term for what we commonly think of as “constellations”) but to no avail.

“I just couldn’t see them. I tried really, really hard. I was like, ‘Am I the last idiot in the world that cannot read the stars?’ They were just dots to me.”

She was particularly frustrated by her inability to find Orion, which all her books said was the most beautiful asterism. The only one she could pick out was what her grandfather called “the Rake”, a row of three stars with one above it and one below. He said it was the rake God used to gather the stars every morning.

Flash forward to Hari’s mid-20s. She had just learnt English and was putting it to use by translating some newly developed astronomy software. It was about midnight, and she was sitting at her desk, facing the window, the city of Bucharest stretched out beneath her. Suddenly, looking back and forth between the window and the map of the night sky on her screen, she realised something: the Rake WAS Orion. She’d been seeing it the whole time.

“That was the aha moment,” she says. All at once, something clicked. “I could see every dot. I could remember everything. It was as if the skies opened for me.”

Space Place 2

From that moment on, she embraced stargazing with a passion. And it was stargazing that led her all the way to New Zealand, because she was determined to see Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky and one that wasn’t visible from her part of the Northern Hemisphere. She only intended to live and work here temporarily, but then she was hired by none other than Carter Observatory. That was 14 years ago.

“I thought I’d be the biggest idiot to go now that I’ve got my dream job.”

At the moment, Hari is gearing up for Stargazing 101, a five-week course she’ll be running every Monday night, 7pm–8.30pm, beginning 1 April (numbers are limited, so book now!). The course is designed for absolute beginners, Wellingtonians who want to “know their night sky”. By the end of it, you’ll be able to recognise stars and asterisms, share stories about them, orient yourself in the dark and even measure time with your hand.

“And it’s going to be fun,” Hari adds. “You don’t often get to think about the big questions. How old is the universe? Where are the aliens? This is an opportunity to escape the routines and just come and be … immersed in stardust.”

know your night sky

Know Your Night Sky: Stargazing 101

New Zealand has some of the absolute best skies for stargazing in the world.

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