Have you heard of star hopping and star parties? It’s where you can gaze into the night sky and view the spectacular show put up by the stars and the planets
Saturn looks just like how it is shown in school textbooks, a hula-hooping ball. The red cloud inside Jupiter resembles a fresh bruise. Venus looks like a Christmas trinket.
I noticed all this during a star-gazing night organised on my college terrace, in Vandalur, years ago. For an earthling, the sky hasn’t changed much. Probably a few stars burst and a bunch of asteroids clashed, but join a star-gazing group on a cloudless night, and you can see what I saw. Or even more.
There are a bunch of amateur astronomers in the city who, over the years, have managed to spot the darkest locations around Chennai — Ramanchery, Yercaud, Vembakkam, Kavalur, Nagalapuram and Nagari — to organise star parties, star hopping nights and photography sessions.
A number of clubs, such as Horizon: The Astronomy Club of IIT Madras, Chennai Astronomy Club, and Indian Amateur Astrophotographer, provide platforms for constant engagement on the topic. While the Chennai Astronomy Club organises star parties for the public, the club at IIT focusses more on engaging students at an academic level. Many amateur astronomers also visit schools and colleges to organise star-gazing nights.
Ahead of World Astronomy Day (October 8), a bunch of them are gathered in the telescope-crowded house of Suresh Mohan, who is probably the first person in India to practise Deep Sky Photography of galaxies and nebulae, which to the naked eye would seem like a puff of smoke. Outside, on his balcony, he arranges the telescope mount to align it with the earth’s axis and follow the moving sky from East to West. “The set-up alone requires over two hours, and to get a clear picture, you will have to expose the camera for five hours or so. It involves taking 10 photos every 20 minutes for a span of 200 minutes. Then, these photos have to be stacked one on top of the other,” says Suresh, who takes workshops for students in top institutions such as IIT, NIT, Indian Institute of Astrophysics among others. Recently, Suresh and team went to Ladakh, where they took photos of the sky from a height of 14,000 feet.
The rest of the team includes a potpourri of people from diverse backgrounds — a doctor, a professor, a businessman, a finance employee, and three IIT students. Their casual conversations include jargon-filled discussions about the transit of Mercury around the sun, solar eclipse in Jupiter, and Sirius and its companion star (Sirius is a team of Sirius A and B). “Did you know that the popular Pole Star is actually a cluster of four different stars?” asks one of them.
V. Anand, who has been “observing the skies for one Saturn year (27-and-a-half earth years)”, tells me that one can observe around 8,000 stars with the naked eye, and around 40,000 with an ordinary binocular. With a proper telescope, one can even see meteor showers, craters on the moon, moons of Jupiter, and the polar ice caps on Mars… “In 1988, Mars came in direct opposition to the Sun, giving all those here a better view. I was still in school then, but I would wake up every day at 3 a.m., observe through a small telescope, and sketch the polar ice caps. Over the span of four months of consistently doing it, I observed my sketches and saw that the polar ice caps were thinning down to almost nothing. It gave me a thrill to know that summer was coming to Mars,” adds Anand, one of the lucky few in 1986 to catch a glimpse of Halley’s Comet, which appears once in 76 years.
Unlike astronomers, who go into the Mathematics of it, an amateur astronomer is more kicked about finding out how Kepler would have formulated his laws, how the early man calculated the speed of rotation, mass and revolution time of the earth, and the science behind the 12 zodiac signs. “Observe three planets over three different times of the day, over a period of days, and it is possible to chart their movement over the next 15 years using a simulator,” says Somayajulu Dhulipala, a member of Horizon – the Astronomy Club, run by the Centre for Innovation, at IIT. Astronomy is also largely used for time-keeping. “Different civilisations followed different calendars. Even today, there is a solar and a lunar calendar. The Chinese follow the calendar based on the orbit of Jupiter, which takes 12 years to complete one revolution around the Sun,” he says.
Most star-gazing events happen over an entire night. “Once, we managed to spot 40 galaxies in two hours, from Kavalur,” chips in Anand.
For beginners, there are applications like Sky Map, which can help them spot the bright constellations such as Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Scorpius, Columba and Lupus. “What’s interesting is that, we look up, and what we see is history.
All the lights that we see, have travelled several light years. Even the Sun’s light that we see is eight-and-a-half minutes old,” says Venkatesan Renganathan, a visual astronomer.
“Seeing the vastness of the sky tells us so much about the universe that we live in, about God. It makes us realise that we are so insignificant and tiny, just like stardust…” says Anand.