Stars in the eyes

Illustration: Sreejith R.Kumar   | Photo Credit: sreejith r.kumar

Vaisakhan Thampi waits for moonless nights when the sky is pitch-dark. That is when he hits the road to go to places such as Kovalam, Valiyathura bridge, Nedumangad and Ponmudi. He is one of the many in the city who do not mind travelling a few km or staying up the night to watch the stars. “The best time to sky-watch is when there is a new moon and a cloudless sky,” says the research scholar at the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology, Pappanamcode. “I’ve recently observed Comet Lovejoy 2 and the International Space Station on their transit over the city,” adds the 27-year-old.

He is just one of the many active members and associates of the district chapter of the Amateur Astronomers Organisation Kerala [AASTRO Kerala], which usually meets on the first Thursday of every month at the Kerala Science and Technology Museum (KSTM) at PMG, where the organisation itself is headquartered. At the monthly session, all eyes are on the Hubble space telescope as Anirudh V.L., a post-graduate student of physics, and Gokul Das, a young space engineer at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, talk about the facts and figures related to NASA’s premier eye in the sky. Listening to them in rapt attention, awestruck by Hubble’s first-of-its-kind images of outer space, is a packed audience of amateur stargazers, comprising men, women and children of all ages. Queries and observations fly thick and fast, making it a lively discussion on astronomy, cosmology and space science. Later, the telescopes will come out and together they will observe the star-studded show that is the night sky over the city.

“The five-year-old organisation was born out of a need to popularise astronomy, space science and allied subjects as a science as well as a hobby,” says Vaisakhan, secretary of AASTRO Kerala. As such, they are a state-wide network of likeminded individuals from all walks of life – from bankers and senior citizens to government employees, school and college students, homemakers, engineers, teachers, scientists, doctors, even daily wage labourers…all drawn together by a common interest in astronomy.

“The stars have many secrets to tell us and like many of my fellow stargazers I’ve had a fascination for the skies from my childhood onwards. There is something surreal about gazing upon a star millions of light years away, knowing that what you are observing is older than civilisation itself,” says Sharath Prabhav, Anirudh’s classmate, and another active member of the group.

I am actually a late comer to the field, having developed an interest in it after I started studying physics for my undergraduate degree. Soon enough, I was entranced. You quickly realise that the earth is such a tiny, even trivial part of the story that is the Universe,” adds Athul R.T., another physics student.

AASTRO Kerala is mainly involved in spreading awareness about the subject through outreach activities such as science and astronomy education, particularly “busting the myths surrounding astrology,” conducting stargazing events, field trips, workshops and seminars, bringing out publications and so on.

The amateur astronomers say that it helps that the city is home to the biggest telescope in India that is available for public use (at the Priyadarsini Planetarium).

“The authorities, particularly Arul Jerald Prakash, director, KSTM, have been very supportive of our activities, giving us use of their observational equipment, all in an attempt to develop a scientific temper among the masses,” says Vaisakhan.

However, given the proximity of the city to the equator, cloudy skies put a dampener on stargazing for much of the year. “The best time to sky-watch in the city is between December and April, when the skies are comparatively clearer,” explains Gokul, the group’s resident technical expert.

The best place to observe the sky is anywhere you have a 360 degree clear view of the sky, say the astronomers. “In the city there is light pollution, which often hampers the view. The skies over the suburbs are much clearer and there is not much in way of light pollution,” adds Gokul. Techie Aravind N.C., who works at Optiologic Technologies in Techonopark, concurs: “After capturing ISS and Lovejoy on camera, I want to now take a picture of the Milky Way. I’ve tried doing so in the city but it’s too faint due to light pollution.” Paramughal in Venjaramoodu is also a hot destination for sky-watching. Members of AASTRO Kerala also frequent the open ground of the Vocational Higher Secondary School in Koliyakode. “Often, the students of the school, their parents, teachers and the villagers also join us for the sighting,” says Vaisakhan.

They also say that sky-watching is an activity that requires much patience. “Every time you look through a telescope don’t expect to see a cosmic event like a supernova. For most people, such a thing is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Last year we had the good fortune to observe a supernova – SN2014J,” says Gokul. Vaisakhan adds: “The reality is not the colour photos that Hubble takes. Most of the time while observing outer space, you will see only fuzzy patches punctuated with bright spots. It often comes as a surprise to first time observers. Keep watching and the wonders of the Universe will grow on you.”

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Watch the sky

Come February 16, Sivarathri, the group is planning a sky-watching event, general awareness classes on astronomy and observation sessions, among other things. “Any one can turn up and attend the classes, which is likely to be from 7 p.m. to around 1 a.m. at the Planetarium. If the sky is cloudy, we will project models using Stellarium, a free, open source software, with which one can stimulate a realistic sky in 3D on computers.”

Spot the ISS

It’s very easy to spot the International Space Station (ISS) with the naked eye as it whizzes across the sky, some 400 km above the earth, at 7.6 km/sec. Sign up for NASA’s Spot the Station service and it will send you an alert 24 hours prior to the transit timings above the city. The next possible transits of ISS over Thiruvananthapuram are on February 26, 7.49 p.m. (for three minutes) and February 27, 6.56 p.m. (for five minutes), in the north to east-south east direction. If you want to track the ISS real-time check out dedicated websites such as, to name just one.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 2:02:41 PM |

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