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Draper Laboratory and MIT have developed a tiny satellite the size of a loaf of bread that will undertake one of the biggest tasks in astronomy: finding Earthlike planets beyond our solar system—or exoplanets—that could support life. The “nanosatellite,” called ExoPlanetSat, packs powerful, high-performance optics and new control and stabilization technology in a small package. It is scheduled to launch in 2012. Read more



Pleiades, the seven sisters (Photo credit: Dr. Suresh Mohan)

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.


BAS members (L-R: Rakesh, Madhu, Sandeep, Amar and Utkarsh) at Kavalur1100 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:

VBOWhen 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.

Asia's largest telescope (2.3 metre aperture)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

Venus comes close to the MoonIt 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. 

Vijaykumar of Tamil Nadu Astronomy AssociationMr. 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.

Running Chicken Nebula (Photo credit: Dr. Suresh Mohan)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.

The sunrise at YelagiriHe 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.


ÓVantika. September 28, 2008

It was the first time they invited Kurds. And the reason was astronomy! In an unprecedented move, amateur astronomers of Iran invited their counterparts from Kurdistan, an autonomous region in Iraq, to participate in the second Sufi competition held in Zahedan, Iran, on August 28, 2008.

Mna mountain, 70 km north of Zahedan, was the location for the Sufi competitionFollowing the first competition in 2006, held in the memory of famous Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi  (903986 AD), ASIAC wanted to give it a global appeal by inviting people from all over the world competing in finding celestial objects in the sky.

The second leg of the competition was conducted almost two decades after First Persian Gulf War, fought between Iraq and Iran for eight long years (1980-1988).

Considering the animosity between the two countries still prevails, it was an extraordinary step from the Astronomy Society of Iran – Amateur Committee (ASIAC) to call upon Kurdish astronomers to their share mutual passion for stars and sky.

To make this possible, ASIAC decided to expand their reach by engaging neighbors first. What followed was an invitation to Amateur Astronomy Association of Kurdistan’s (AAAK) president Azhy Hasan and vice president Rojgar Hamid.

“This was the first astronomical event attended not only by Kurds but by Iraqis so far,” said Hasan, delighted to be part of the beginning.


Iranians have a large astronomy society named Anjumani Nujumi Iran, Hasan said, and added, there is a good astronomy shop in Iran for selling telescopes, binoculars, DVDs, software, books and other astronomical stuff.

Security forces at the competition site near Pakistan borderFrom all over Iran 80 amateur astronomers were selected based on their previous observations and interview. They all gathered to compete in finding 155 deep sky objects listed by ASIAC organizers. Participants brought their telescopes to the Ladiz village in the desert, near Zahedan, close to the Pakistan border. Given the sensitivity of the region, the competition was held under high security.

“And the unique thing we saw in Tehran was the coffee shop for astronomers called Suha coffee shop named after Mizar and Alcor stars in the constellation of Ursa Major,” he said.

About the kind of equipment used, Hamid said: “Participants had brought a mix of Dobasonian and Newtonian telescopes. There were also a few GO TO equatorial telescopes for astrophotography. One of the youngsters captured a brilliant photo of the spiral galaxy of M33.” Hamid received honorary prizes at the event as a sign of respect from the Iranian committee.

Hasan and Hamid believe it was Iranian journalist Pouria Nazemi and science journalist and astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi who made all this possible.

Nazemi and Tafreshi are board members of ASIAC. Nazemi is a science journalist with Nojum, an astronomy magazine of Iran, and regional coordinator (Middle East) of Astronomy Without Borders (AWB), an international organization that works to connect astronomy enthusiasts of all kinds around the world. Tafreshi, a well known astrophotographer, is member of the Board of AWB and is founder director of The World at Night (TWAN), an AWB special project for the International Year of Astronomy 2009.

All round the world AWB members are working towards its mission to ‘build bridges through the sky’ and that has motivated Nazemi and Tafreshi, ASIAC and Mehbang, a local astronomy group in Iran, to invite Kurds to the competition.

“We knew about AAAK through AWB. Fortunately they joined us for the event. I think their presence was a bright message that sky and astronomy can help us to forgot past and see the peaceful future,” said Nazemi.


It was a good gesture on both sides to share the common interest, just as we share the common sky. Understandably, the war is not easy to forget for either of them. The sour relations between Iraq and Iran date back to the First Persian Gulf War lasting from September 1980 until August 1988.

The war began when Iraq invaded Iran on 22 September 1980 following a long history of border disputes and fears of Shia insurgency among Iraq’s long suppressed Shia majority influenced by Iran’s Islamic revolution. However, Iraq could make limited progress into Iran and had to retreat within several months. For the next six years Iran remained offensive.

The war caused great economic damage and loss of a half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers as well as civilians, with many more injured and wounded. In 1987, the UN Security Council passed a resolution to call for peace and a return to pre-war boundaries. Iraq, which had lost important pieces of land over the course of the war, accepted the resolution. Iran, however, was not ready to surrender its gains when victory seemed close at hand, and so the war continued. But by April 1988, the Iraqi forces began a new series of attacks on the Iranians and caused severe devastation on the Iranian Kurdish village of Zardan. Hundreds were killed at once. The Iranians considered revenge, but were financially shattered to regroup. Following this, both Iran and Iraq accepted the terms of the Security Council and on 20 August 1988 peace was restored.

At the end of the war, amid the withdrawal of the Iraqi forces from three Northern provinces, Kurdistan emerged as an autonomous entity inside Iraq, with its own local government in 1992.

Henceforth, both Iran and Kurdistan have remained distanced from each other and a bit closed to the outside world. “Now, even though relations between Kurdish political parties and Iran are good, on the regional level there is still a kind of sensitivity between Kurdistan and Iran since Iran holds about 10 million Kurds and is afraid that Iraqi Kurdistan might stimulate Iranian Kurds to ask for independence and separation from Iran,” explains Hasan.

Now, a slow change can be seen. People from these secluded regions are beginning to meet people from outside environments to exchange ideas and cultures and to share their life with the rest of the world.

Encouraging union amongst them through astronomy was the strong undercurrent of the competition. Highlighting this undercurrent, an Iranian amateur astronomer, Irene Shivaei said: “Our common interest was the sky! At first some of my friends did not like the Kurdish guests because they could not forget and forgive the war. But as the night grew thicker, people grew familiar with each other and soon one could see the hatred dissolving. Everything changed! Now we are good friends with Hasan and Hamid.”

Hasan and Hamid in front of the Milky Way“I think sky and nature both can bring people closer to each other and make them forget their political problems, because nature is our mutual mother. When people got to know each other during the competition they realized that they are all the same, the Iraqis are no different from them, and we all belong to the same planet,” Shivaei expressed.

Supporting Shivaei’s sentiments, Hasan said they received a very cordial treatment from everyone present in the village: “We felt happy! We found people extraordinarily nice and very kind to us. They were eager to speak with us about our feelings and ideas.”

Some participants expressed their change of feeling toward the Kurdish guests. One teenaged astrophotographer, Husseini Noosher told Hasan: “In the beginning I hated you as Iraqis, but after I spent a few hours with you, and after I observed your kind and generous behavior towards all my friends, I started to blame myself Why do I hate these nice persons? What are their crimes? How can I judge them by what Saddam did against us? Saddam was guilty, not Azhy and Rojgar and none of the Iraqi civilians! And so I decided to be friends with you and to start respecting all Iraqi people.”

Asked if the decision to visit Iran after so many years was a tough, Hasan said: “We weren’t surprised. We have been in contact with Tafreshi for a long time now, and Mike, President of AWB, had told us a lot about Iranian amateur astronomers and his visit to Iran during the Venus transit in 2004. This is why it wasn’t hard to make the decision to visit Iran.”


Seeing the response at the second Sufi competition, ASIAC has made a different plan for this year. Nazemi disclosed that “probably in 2009 we shall arrange that astronomers all over the world can participate in the event from their home country without the need of traveling to Iran”.

He said a website is already underway for that purpose which will enable each country participants to take part in the competition by finding a special country-specific list of celestial objects to be observed.

This year is also the International Year of Astronomy and AWB, being the nodal contact organization for IYA, is up in support of ASIAC and many other similar affiliates to bring people together in the name of astronomy and world peace. Undoubtedly, Iran event last year was just the beginning of what AWB aspires to do globally. However, with all its messengers spread all over the globe, the destination is not too far.


The week gone by was extremely busy yet successful. Many things came to fruition for which I had been waiting. To begin with, although it happened in the last, the first project of my newly set up book division came out fresh from the printing press. The eight-months of hard work and the apprehensions about the book’s successful completion at last came to a happy end and gained ‘big eyes’ response from everyone – at the press and in office.


101 Great Careers for the 21st Century – that’s what the book is called. It is a good compilation of various careers available to the youth in India, and lists some good institutes of each career field. Why the book is so special to me? It is because I came in my current job to start a book division for the company. This was the first project that I began with from the scratch – editing, proofing, budgeting, getting it typeset, cover design, sponsors, marketing strategy, sales targets, etc. – and, being a one woman army, it took me a long time to send it to press. Gladly, the wait is over and results are better than expected.


The second good thing that happened this week was to get associated with Astronomy Without Borders, an organization that is working on astronomy projects and trying to bring in people from across the globe, exactly what the name suggests. It is working towards celebrating the International Astronomy Year 2009.


I managed to become a volunteer writer for them this week onwards. It was a prestigious thing to get it in my lap out of the blue as science reporting has been my interest since my reporting years and I had always been interested in bringing astronomy closer to common man through my writings. The story I have recently submitted (in draft form yet) is about Iran and Iraq astronomy groups coming together to share their common interest in astronomy. When the story is finally done, I shall post it here for you and will be happy to get your feedback. I hope you enjoy reading it.


And finally, the navratras began this week. This means the festivals are here! What more does one need other than to celebrate what life offers!

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