If you just care to look up, the sky's teeming with stars, constellations and planets that are waiting to be explored.

All of us have stopped and stared at one point or another at the night sky. Deep purple or midnight blue, pitch black or wicked grey, the multitude of stars and the clear moon has left generations of men awestruck at Nature's beauty. Yet, how many of us know what a nebula is? Or how to judge the age of a star? Do we know all our constellations off the top or our head? How many of us take the sky seriously and perhaps even own a telescope? Or is it just something we do when we are ‘stressed' or ‘overwhelmed' with the worldly happenings on planet Earth?

The Birla Planetarium is a storehouse of resources — technology to help the common man decipher the skies and the manpower to explain every little step to you along the way. Extremely affordable and accessible, it is perhaps the city's greatest weapon in its attempts to understand what happens once the sun goes down and the birds fly back to their nests. We caught up with Dr. P Iyamperumal, Executive Director of the planetarium and he unravelled the mysteries of the skies for us. For the amateur astronomer as well as the aspiring, for the newly inducted as well as for the experienced, here is a quick guide to the sky – what was, what is and what is going to be.

What are the important events of the year gone by?

Last year saw two solar eclipses and two lunar eclipses, meteor showers and a Sun spot cycle. There was also a super moon where the moon appears to be bigger to the naked eye.

How aware is the youth about the sky and astronomy as both a science and a hobby?

The public in general and the youth in particular are not very aware of what the sky has to offer. To bridge this gap between availability of knowledge and interest to pursue it, we conduct courses for the public on weekends as well as camps during the holidays. This way, a few more people know what lies above them.

Tell us some simple steps to stargazing.

Star gazing can be self-taught or learnt but there are some basic precautions to be followed. Do not look at the sky during the day whether it be through the telescope or the naked eye. It will have a direct negative impact on you. Wait till nightfall and then ensure that you are viewing the sky safely, without causing damage to yourself or to the sky (through light pollution, etc).

Is star-gazing an expensive hobby?

Star gazing does not need to be an expensive hobby. There is a lot one can learn with nothing but the naked eye and the time to spare. For example, if you can find the Big Dipper and follow its tail in one direction, you will stumble upon the constellation Leo. The other direction will lead you to the Pole Star. At any point of time, you should be able to see six constellations with your naked eye and this time of the year, even Jupiter and Saturn may be visible. Such exploration does not require any equipment at all!

It is Pongal season and Bhogi is known for burning rubbish. Has awareness of the impact of such festivities increased/decreased in the last few years?

It has not had too much of an impact on the night sky as such. The only time when we notice the enormity of the impact is during the lunar eclipse when the moon seems too red due to the amount of pollution in the air. There has not been too much of change in this respect, for better or for worse, in the last few years.

All in all, astronomy is one of those hobbies that is admired by all but seriously patronised by a mere handful. If only we all know what lay above us, it is very likely that we would appreciate it so much more. The solution to this situation lies in awareness – making sure that each one of us knows the sky above our heads just as much as we know the ground beneath our feet.

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Spot on

What to look forward to:

We will have eclipses this year as well, both solar as well as lunar. Every year, we have a total of five solar eclipses and two lunar eclipses. However, this year, the solar eclipses cannot be seen from Tamil Nadu.

In October or November, we will be able to experience a meteor shower.

We will also see a Mars opposition. This is when Mars is directly opposite the Sun in the sky and therefore, seems very bright.

Perhaps the most exciting news of all, we will be witness to a Venus transit this June. This transit is occurring after a gap of seven years but will come again only in another 113 years!

Also, the proverbial ‘blue moon' will occur this year. This is the phenomenon where there are two full moons in the same month and will occur in late August.

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What you can see:

Since we are closer to the equator, one can spot almost all constellations except the southern-most ones like Mensa. Orion, Big Bear, Auriga and Cassiopeia are a regular feature in our night sky, besides the 12 zodiac constellations.

Right now, the brightest objects in our sky would be the Venus in the western sky and Jupiter overhead, easily spotted immediately after sunset. In March, these two planets will seemingly appear to be close to one another.

Telescope:

To get a better look at the objects way above your head, you will need a telescope with a minimum aperture diameter of 4 or 5 inches. With a telescope of this specification, you will be able to observe Saturn's rings, the craters on the moon and even the Galilean satellites — Jupiter's four largest moons.

Online help:

StarCalac and Stellarium are free-to-download planetarium software that show what exactly is in the sky at a given place and moment. For Chennai, the latitude is 13° N and longitude 80.25° E. You could use these or other sky charts to help you stargaze. Also check out www.atroviewer.com for a mapped look at your sky.

Inputs from DR. S.S.R. PERUMAL, Joint Director, PSTC, Birla Planetarium

Yashasvini is a student of IIT-M.