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Out of Office: a Day in the Life of an Astronomy Expert in Iceland

Out of Office spotlights pioneers who have decided to pursue their passions beyond the typical 9-to-5 job.

While Iceland is globally recognized at the ideal place to view the Northern Lights, especially during the season of September through October, it is also the ultimate stargazing destination for the same reason. Here you will experience an unobstructed night sky offering visitors the ideal conditions for viewing nature’s most phenomenal mystical show.

This might come as a surprise but it’s also one of the reasons why of the country’s leading astronomy experts, Sævar Helgi Bragason, is NOT a fan of the Aurora. His reason? It hides his beloved stars. Whether guests are looking to catch one or both, Hotel Rangá is not only one of the best places in the world for lights chasers to stay, but also aspiring astronomers given its secluded countryside location and its own state-of-the-art observatory.

On most clear nights Sævar is on hand (at the observatory he helped build) to guide hotel guests through the constellations and celestial stories behind the stars using high-tech telescopes that peek through a roll-off roof into new worlds floating above. Guests can also book a one-on-one session with the astronomer (weather permitting) for a more intimate understanding of the night sky. Here is what a typical day – or night – is like for him at the hotel.

Fridrik Palsson and Sævar Helgi Bragason
How long have you had this dream job as an Astronomy Expert at Hotel Ranga?

It has now been seven years since Friðrik Pálsson, the owner of Hotel Rangá, called me regarding the Rangá Observatory. He was seeking some advice for choosing the right equipment for the hotel‘s observatory and he called me because I was a part of The Amateur Astronomical Society of Seltjarnarnes in Iceland. I drove out to the hotel to assist him in choosing the right equipment and since then I have worked there, every clear night guiding guests around the night sky.

We understand that you are NOT a fan of the Aurora? Can you please explain why?

Just like the city lights in Reykjavik area are light pollution for seeing the Aurora, the Aurora is a light pollution in space to see the stars. Hotel Rangá is well located to examine the night sky because it‘s located away from the city, and even though I do find the northern lights beautiful, I‘m more interested in the stars so I prefer the night sky without them.

For example, in the autumn of 2016, I was trying to photograph the autumn night sky for a book I was releasing. I tried multiple times to go out to catch a photo without northern lights, but I never managed to. There was always some aurora, and the stars I was trying to photograph would disappear. So, I ended up having to buy a photograph from someone else.

Hotel Ranga Observatory
Tell us what your typical day (or night) entails?

Along with being Hotel Rangá‘s Stargazing expert I teach at a local high school and host a TV program about science at RÚV, The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. If there are clear skies, I go to Hotel Rangá in the evening. We usually open the observatory at 9 pm. Its open for approximately 2 hours, sometimes a little longer. I guide the guests around the night sky with a laser pointer, pointing out what is interesting that season, including the planets and even far away galaxies as well as talk about the myths, legends, and history of the constellations.

Why did you want to build the observatory?

I believe Friðrik Pálsson, the owner of Hotel Rangá, felt the need to provide even better service to his guests that are there to see the northern lights. To offer something special to the guests at the hotel to enjoy even if the northern lights don’t appear there is so much else to see in the night sky. Many people are seeking unique, educational experiences, and that is exactly what Rangá Observatory offers.

Northern Lights Selfie  |  Photo by Tom Allen
For guests who want to see the Northern Lights, what do you recommend?

It is all about patience. The northern lights are a natural phenomenon, so they are constantly changing. You should plan for a little longer stay, cause the more days you stay the likelier it is that one of those nights they will appear. Typically, we recommend a stay of four nights for better odds. [Check out the Age of Aurora package here.] The lights last anywhere between a few seconds to a few hours – no way to predict. Justremember to enjoy it when it happens!

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