Recently I experienced an amazing star show ¾ not the one with celebrities walking down the red carpet, but a star show where amateur astronomers observe stars, deep sky objects, planets and lots more.
For me, it all began with reading Yahoo group mail. Being a regular reader of Yahoo! Astronomy Club India I came to know about the Venus-Moon night on 28 February when planet Venus was to come close to the Moon. Just a few inquiries in the group made me speak with Amar Sharma of Bangalore Astronomical Society (BAS). A nice, helpful guy who is passionate about night sky observing.
Later when I met other people I was told that Amar is one of the brightest visual observers among amateur astronomers in India. As a visual observer he finds deep sky objects with naked eye or with the help of binoculars. Two years into visual observing, he has made a place for himself and is respected for his talent among amateur astronomers in South India. More details will follow.
Amar told me that a few Bangalore amateur astronomers are travelling to Yelagiri, some 160 km away from Bangalore, to watch Venus and Moon. There was place for one, and so I joined the gang.
EN ROUTE TO KAVALUR
1100 hrs: I was excited to set out on a trip to watch stars with amateur astronomers. Thoughts of telescopes, close view of the planets and stars filled my mind. Soon I met Amar, Sandeep, Madhu, Rakesh, and Utkarsh (the youngest). The journey began and so did the introduction round.
We headed for Vainu Bappu Observatory (VBO) in Kavalur, 170 km from Bangalore and on the way to Yelagiri. The journey on Bangalore-Vellore-Chennai highway was a complete delight. The scenic beauty all through the way and the smooth road made the journey memorable. Meanwhile, in the car each of us gave our introduction. Amar is at present full-time into visual observing. Madhu is a software engineer with GE, Sandeep too is a software professional working with Samsung mobile, and Rakesh too belongs to software industry and works with Infosys. Utkarsh was the youngest among us, a student of class IX with keen interest in astronomy and physics.
On our way, we crossed Krishnagiri fort. It was atop a hill and it seems tourism does not exist in the region. However, it looked quite strong and royal from distance. Not far from there, we took a diversion from the highway into the town of Krishnagiri. We stopped at Sarvana Bhavan to fill ourselves. We had awesome south Indian meal, after which everyone slept through an hour’s drive.
I woke up only when we were close to VBO. This was my first visit to an observatory and it proved to be a visit worth every moment we spent there.
Vainu Bappu Observatory, Kavalur
The Vainu Bappu Observatory is the main observatory of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, located in the village of Kavalur in Tamil Nadu. It has been named after Indian astronomer Manali Kallat Vainu Bappu (Aug. 10, 1927 – Aug.19, 1982), who helped establish several astronomical institutions in India. The observatory was inaugurated by former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi who named the observatory and its largest telescope (2.3 metre) after Bappu.
A number of discoveries have been made at Kavalur observatory. In 1972, by one-metre Zeiss telescope scientists discovered a trace of atmosphere on Gynymede, the largest satellite of Jupiter and five years later the same telescope discovered the rings of Uranus. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vainu_Bappu)
When we entered the observatory, it was a vast land with telescope domes built at far distances. Despite the wide landscape in its boundary the observatory was well maintained, with cut lawns and flower laden gardens. Around the observatory you could see the surrounding hills and hear the silence.
The observatory is open for public on Saturday, from 3 pm onwards through the night. However, only the largest telescope is shown to public. Therefore, we could see only the domes of 16 inch aperture telescope, 25 inch diameter telescope, and 40 inch aperture telescope. Finally when we reached the dome of 2.3 metre aperture Vainu Bappu telescope, Asia’s largest telescope, it was a sight worth seeing.
A group of school children had come to see the telescope and we along with them were looking like pigmies in front of the ‘huge’ telescope. It looked powerful, strong, and almost magical. For a moment I felt awed by its large size and got lost in its grandeur. I imagined that maybe it can make me hold a star in my hand. It was childish but the feeling was inexplicable.
One of the telescope operators at the observatory, Mr. Dinakaran showed the working of the telescope. The dome opened and he explained how the telescope works. When the dome opened, I could not resist staring at the structure. Slowly the telescope moved too and you could hear all children’s “ooooooh” echo. According to Mr. Dinakaran, in last 30 years more than 200 stars have been discovered by the 2.3 m Vainu Bappu telescope. Something I can’t even imagine how it would have been.
When we stepped out of the building, Amar showed us the mock mirror of the 2.3 metre telescope which was kept on display near the telescope building. Believe it or not, it weighs one tonne!
That was the end of our observatory tour and again we were on our way to Yelagiri. More rare sights were yet to follow.
Yelagiri Star Party
It was near sunset when we reached Yelagiri. By the time we went up the hill, it was dark and Venus had come close to the Moon. Yelagiri seemed like a small village with green landscape and silent houses spread in a wide area. It was peaceful.
Besides BAS members, 20 amateur astronomers from Tamil Nadu Astronomy Association, Chennai, and from IIT-Madras had come to Yelagiri for observing. We all stayed at a resort where two terraces were booked for setting up telescopes and equipment for observing and imaging. Three more BAS members – Praveen, Prayag, and Keerthi – joined us late.
The Chennai group was led by Dr. Suresh Mohan, an astrophotography aficionado, and the IIT-M team was led by Akarsh Simha, a star among amateur astronomers in Tamil Nadu. Akarsh is well-known for his visual observing skills and is supposed to have guided Amar into finer elements of visual observing.
The night sky was clear as far as I could see it. However, amateur astronomers were a bit disappointed that the sky wasn’t clear enough. To me it looked 100 times darker and clearer than what I see from my house balcony every day! For best imaging results Dr. Mohan set up his TANASTRO telescopes on one of the terraces to capture photographs of deep sky objects, meanwhile on the other terrace Akarsh and Amar gave other amateurs lessons on stars and observation. They both used laser beam to locate stars in the sky and to my amazement both were well versed with location of hundreds of stars. It was incredible the way they could just point up in the sky and tell the name of the star and its related features.
Mr. Vijaykumar, a mechanical engineer by profession and an amateur astronomer from Chennai, was another interesting amateur astronomer I met. He had set up his Celestron 25×100 on his custom-designed parallelogram (p-) mount on the terrace where Dr. Mohan had set up his TANASTRO for imaging. Mr. Vijaykumar’s binoculars were the first thing I used to view the Moon. To my astonishment, none of the amateur astronomers present there were interested in seeing the Moon. For them it was a normal sight, but for me it was something supernatural. The Moon looked like a grey ball with a rough surface and the light of the sun was falling on it from an angle as if there’s a lamp lit somewhere down there.
It was simply beautiful. I wish I could capture a picture of it, but with a camera it is difficult to take a picture through a binocular. You need to have expertise for it and I am far away from acquiring it, it seems. Mr. Vijaykumar’s binoculars weighed over 5 kg and could show many deep sky objects clearly. In little conversation that I could have with him, I could sense his passion for astronomy and the wealth of knowledge he has gained on the subject over the years. He explained the position of some stars to me and told me the startling fact that the sky (or rather the Earth) moves 40,000 km in one night, explaining the fast movement of stars that we were witnessing there.
As the night grew darker, people set up their telescopes and laptops and opened guides to start locating stars or simply observe. Dr. Mohan took pictures of Pleiades (star cluster popularly also known as the seven sisters) and the Running Chicken Nebula. He also showed me the spiral Milky Way. I spent some time looking at how Dr. Mohan’s telescopes capture the images. It wasn’t as simple as a camera click. One telescope used to track and the other used to capture, and then the images used to get transferred on the computer. During all this I was thinking how technology has made these things so easy that now anybody can just buy powerful telescopes and use them to view sky objects as clearly as earth objects.
From one of the telescopes I even saw Saturn and its rings. Past 2 am, we saw Comet Lulin making its round and soon a satellite passed through the sky, looking like a star swiftly crossing by. Around 4 am Amar taught me how to locate constellation Virgo, Leo, Taurus, and Sagittarius. Before his descriptions I could hardly see any connection between the stars but when he made me connect the path between different stars, it seemed they always existed as constellations and were clearly visible in the sky. Amar also talked of constellation Orion and Ursa Major.
He did try to make me locate some star clusters on my own using his 5 kg binoculars, but with drowsy eyes, spectacles on, and no clue about directions, I failed to do anything significant. For me it was a fun night and all I was doing was absorbing every piece of information that was coming my way from different people.
Soon it was time for sunrise and Praveen showed me Jupiter and Mercury rising just before the sun raised its head. Slowly the sun followed and with the sunrise our night show concluded. Memorizing as many pictures of the night as I could, I was on my way back to Bangalore ¾ thrilled but sleepy.