Have you always done more than wonder at the stars up above? Here is how the star struck have transformed a celestial fascination into a fulfilling pastime.
If you didn’t recite ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ as a kid, then you must have stared transfixed at the moon as a coaxing parent tried to shove a handful of rice down your gullet, chanting ‘Nila , nila odi va’.
Many of us have grown up gazing at the stars from the terrace or fancying ourselves as space astronauts. But when was the last time you looked above your head? High-rise buildings, blindingly bright city lights and life itself may have come between our celestial dreams. But there are quite a few who have relentlessly pursued their extraterrestrial love affair, converting it into a lifelong passion- through amateur astronomy.
No science background, just interest
If there is a silver lining to the unscheduled power cuts that plague us, it is the possibilities that dark skies provide, insist amateur astronomers. A dark location is imperative to spot constellations, planets and celestial phenomenon. But if you thought that amateur astronomers must be postgraduates or science junkies, wait till you meet some of most regular frequenters of the sky observation programme at the Anna Science Centre –Planetarium.
For Rajkumar, an engine driver, star gazing is part of every journey he undertakes. As the train chugs under passing skies, Rajkumar points out the brightest stars to his co-pilot. For Alwin Rufus, a mathematics graduate, it was a fixation with various types of lens as a schoolboy that pulled him into the astronomy. “I made a simple telescope at school and got glued to watching the skies when I had my first look at the night sky through it.” It was a fascination that grew till Alwin managed to save up and convince his parents to buy an imported telescope worth Rs.26,000 recently. Today students go star hopping with him in his own backyard.
V.Kannan has no science background to boast of, taking up a job as computer operator in the District Police Office after ClassXII. But star struck since high school, Kannan has attended monthly observational sessions regularly for 10 years that he is capable of setting up the telescopes and running the whole show when planetarium officials are absent.
Tracing patterns in the sky
“My village near Salem with few electric lights, was an ideal place to star gaze,” recounts Kannan. “I used to lie down tracing patterns of constellations. I’ve lain awake till dawn trying to distinguish stars from planets (the latter don’t appear to twinkle), and watching constellation Orion change positions in the sky.”
Watch the skies
‘Sky watching is the first step in astronomy,” says Alagiri Samy, director of the planetarium. A few planets including Venus, Mars, Mercury and the brightest stars are visible to the naked eye.
“Not every star in a constellation is visible nor can you see the shape of a constellation as described,” explains scientific assistant and co-ordinator of observational sessions, Jaya Paul. “But if you spot the brightest stars, you can imagine how the rest of the constellation may look. Constellations are our landmarks to finding our way through the night sky.”.
So what can first time astronomers expect to catch through the telescope. “To engage them right away, we point to planets,” says Jaya Paul. “Slowly we progress to stars. Many hanker after the zodiac constellations and want to catch a glimpse of the star they were born under.” The Pole Star, Dog Star, Arundhathi, Thiruvathirai are favourites. Some are content just ogling the moon. Through a telescope one can trace the moon’s landscape and spot the mountains and craters. Meteoric showers, comets, eclipses, occultations and transits of planets are eagerly awaited phenomena.
What leaves them starry eyed often varies. While some may find Jupiter and his four moons inspiring, spotting a nebula- the birthplace of a star is an enervating experience for others. “The most beautiful thing I’ve seen through a telescope was the galaxy, Andromeda,” says a rapturous Kannan. “If seeing a planet from another planet is amazing, sighting another galaxy is mind boggling.”
While some phenomenon can fascinate only seasoned observers, novices may find little in them to go gaga over. But there is one spectacle that unanimously bowls over every visitor, says Alagiri Samy. “Saturn is a magnificient sight. You can see a ball encircled by a ring and even the space between the ring and the ball.”
Beginners may encounter frustration in the early stages, warns Alwin. “Perseverance is a key quality for only with experience, you can sail through the skies. But you get to see God’s invisible creations so closely. Astronomy is a renewing miracle.”
Next time there is a power cut, rediscover your wonderment with the skies. Who knows you may spot a falling star, catch a meteoroid shower or wish upon a comet!
Your guide to mapping the skies
Books: Turn Left at Orion - Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis; For books authored closer home, read, Learning Science-Part I - Indhumathi and C.N.R.Rao; A Journey through the Universe -Jayant Narlikar; A Brief Introduction to Astronomy: Birla Institute of Planetary Sciences.
Websites: Youtube videos and blogs on observational astronomy can be found. Visit Sky and Telescope website for stargazing basics and news.
Visit: The Anna Science Centre Planetarium between 6.30 – 9 p.m for sky observational sessions on second Saturday of every month
Equipment: Astronomical binoculars and hand-held telescopes are good for novices; reflective and refractive telescopes cost anywhere around R.s 10,000- 15,00 and more
Tools: Planisphere, in the shape of a circular disc is a practical star-finder to spot major planets and constellations. Sky Chart is your map of the heavens. Generate a city specific sky chart by setting time, date, latitude and longitude at www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky or skypub.com
What to watch out for this year
28, 29: Southern Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower. Can produce about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. Best viewing is east after midnight.
12 -13Perseids Meteor Shower. The Perseids is one of the best meteor showers to observe, producing up to 60 meteors per hour at peak. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight
31 Second Full Moon day of the month (Blue moon).
22 September Equinox. The September equinox occurs at 20:19 (IST). There will be nearly equal amounts of day and night throughout the world.
21-22 Orionids Meteor Shower. The Orionids is an average shower producing about 20 meteors per hour at their peak. Best viewing will be to the east after midnight.
25 Saturn in conjunction (aligns in the direction of the Sun).
17-18 Leonids Meteor Shower. The Leonids is a major meteor shower, producing an average of 40 meteors per hour at their peak.
27 Conjunction of Venus and Saturn. These two bright planets will be within 1 degree of each other in the morning sky. Can be spotted in the east around sunrise.
28 Penumbral Lunar Eclipse: The Moon will pass only
through the lighter shadow of the Earth. Eclipse begins at 17:42 hrs (IST) and ends at 22:23 hrs (IST). During mid eclipse (around 20:03hrs IST) slight brightness change can be observed in the northern tip of the Moon.
3 Jupiter at Opposition. The giant planet will be at its closest approach to Earth and is the best time to view Jupiter and its moons. The planet will rise at sunset and will be visible throughout the night.
13-14 Geminids Meteor Shower. Considered to be the best meteor shower and known for producing up to 60 multicolored meteors per hour at their peak. Best viewing is usually to the east after midnight from a dark location.
(Tamil Nadu Science Centre-source)