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eBay auctions off a night of stargazing with UC Berkeley astronomer for $16,000

23 January 2002

By Robert Sanders, Media Relations

BERKELEY - To astronomers, staying up all night scanning the sky via computer monitor becomes routine. But one amateur astronomer is paying $16,000 to spend a night observing with UC Berkeley's stellar planet hunter, Geoffrey Marcy.

An anonymous buyer with the moniker wc4600 emerged the winner when eBay bidding stopped Thursday morning, Jan. 23, on a Hawaiian getaway that includes a night with Marcy at the controls of the world's largest optical telescope. Proceeds go toward education efforts of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP).

The auction winner gets a trip for two to the Big Island of Hawaii, a behind-the-scenes tour of the W. M. Keck Observatories near the 13,796-foot summit of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano, dinner with Marcy and a night of observing from the Keck I control room at the base of the volcano in Waimea.

"I love the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and I'm honored to help fund its activities," said Marcy, who with his colleagues has discovered about two-thirds of the 100 known extrasolar planets. Many of them were discovered through Keck observations.

Marcy's enthusiasm comes through in a quote he offered for the society's announcement of the auction: "Every time you point one of the giant Keck telescopes skyward, it feels like you're embarking on an epic voyage of discovery. You feel a kinship with Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Newton, Hubble and so many others driven to explore the boundaries of the universe."

He added in an e-mail message, "The ASP has the wonderful goal of bringing the beauty and mystery of the universe to both the classroom and the inquisitive among us of all ages. In these troubling times, looking outward at the vast cosmos may give us the inner wisdom to serve as better stewards of the only habitable planet we humans know of."

The auction was the brainchild of Michael Bennett, executive director of the society. Several years ago, he brought it up at a board meeting, and Marcy thought it was a great idea. But the plan languished until Bennett recently took it up again and gained the enthusiastic cooperation of the Keck Observatories.

"It was very successful, and it certainly will help support our education program," Bennett said. "We think it's a good idea, and we plan to do something like this in the future. The attraction of Keck and a well-known astronomer is something I think a lot of amateurs would be interested in."

Bennett has broached the idea of inviting other astronomers to go on the auction block and has received generally positive responses. One obvious choice is UC Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko, current president of the society and a well-known expert on black holes and supernovas. He is open to the idea.

The idea of auctioning off a night of observing with a top astronomer, apparently unprecedented in the astronomical community, strikes some as funny. But the planet hunters agree it's a good way to help a good cause.

"I think it was extremely generous and gracious of Geoff to do this to help the ASP to raise money," said Marcy's UC Berkeley colleague Debra Fischer.

"This is an incredible opportunity to watch up-close the world's leader in the search for planets around other stars, at the world's largest optical telescope," added Filippenko. "And funds raised from the auction help support the many ongoing public education efforts of the ASP."

For now, the top bidder remains anonymous, though he or she must coordinate schedules with Marcy to join him in Hawaii. According to the society's Web site, the winner and a guest get roundtrip airfare, resort accommodations, car rental, meals and an escorted VIP tour of the observatory - including restricted areas, such as the Keck I and II telescopes, aluminizing room, mirror barn and interferometry lab. They'll even sleep overnight at the nearby Visiting Scientists' Quarters, typically closed to all but astronomers. And they'll get "loaner" jackets to keep them warm on the snowy summit of Mauna Kea.

"It's up to the winner whether we can release a name," Bennett said. "At the moment, we only have an eBay ID, so we sent them an e-mail saying, 'Congratulations. How are you going to pay us?"