Your at-home guide to the stars, planets and comets

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The first telescope AM Aravind ever built — in Class XII — was not the first handmade one in his family. “My father had made one too, before I was even born. It still sits in my grandparents’ house in Vellore,” says the Chennai-based enthusiast over the phone, ruing that no one has taken a photo of it in all these years.

“Using both the telescopes, we could see craters on the moon, Saturn’s rings, and four of the largest moons of Jupiter (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). We used to note down the positions of the moons every night, to observe the changes,” he continues.

“[My father’s was] a very basic refractor telescope, with 100 centimetre focal length… And I think a four-inch diameter objective [lens]. He used PVC pipes for the body of the telescope. Initially, we had a makeshift stand, using an old chair that was lying around in the house. Later, he got a very professional-level stand made, based on specifications given by him.”

These days, the astronomically inclined family — “My mom always used to say that the reason for my interest in astronomy is because she used to read astro books and stargaze while she was pregnant” — has its eyes set on the comet Neowise. So do others around the country, for the comet is said to be the brightest one visible from the Northern Hemisphere in this quarter-century. It has been visible since July 14, and will be for another 18 days.

Your at-home guide to the stars, planets and comets

 

Even if Neowise eludes you, there is a lot to look out for from your rooftop. Says Gurugram-based astrophotographer Ajay Talwar, “Ever since the lockddown began, the skies above Gurgaon have been so clear. I captured a photograph of Venus in Taurus [the planet is supposed to be passing through Taurus constellation over July and August], and Jupiter and Saturn close to each other.” Talwar is an Indian member of TWAN (The World At Night), an international initiative to present the world through nightscapes, and capture celestial attractions from global landmarks. There are also city-based amateur astronomy clubs you can join, which have been active through the lockdown and where longtime enthusiasts guide new minds. And then, there are Facebook groups like Astronomy and Science (over four lakh members), Astrophotography (74,000 members) and the Maharashtra-based Amateur Astronomy Club (over 4,000 members) to turn to as well.

It’s raining meteors

  • Here are the meteor showers to keep an eye out for this year
  • July 28: Aquarids shower

So what do you need to stargaze from home? Not much, if seasoned amateurs and experts are to be believed. Says Neeraj Ladia, business head of Space Chennai, an organisation that works in astronomy education, “The first thing you need, when you look up at the sky, is to know your directions. For instance, Neowise will be visible to the Northwest. You can use a compass on your phone to find it, or look at the North Star.” Besides that, he says, there are a number of stargazing apps which use GPS to figure out where you are standing, and indicate what stars and constellations are before you.

“The next step after this, is real stargazing and appreciation. I suggest you go for a binocular before a telescope, because it gives you the freedom of spanning. You can spot galaxies and nebulae with a normal, 60 millimetre hand-held binocular.” If you want to go further still — “to see the craters of the moon, Jupiter’s bands, or Saturn’s rings, you will need a telescope with an aperture of at least five inches, and focal length of around 700 millimetre.” It will cost you around ₹20,000, says Neeraj, and, “It won’t appear the way you see them in photos, of course, you have to adapt your gaze and notice, analyse.”

Resource check

  • Jayanth Murthi, senior professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, says there are star charts, star trail-image creators “and other tools written in python for complicated calculations” available online for free, for beginners
  • If you want to just look up at the sky and recognise constellations, websites of planetariums can be helpful. Not just Indian ones, but also ones worldwide: mainly the tourist-friendly Hayden Planetarium in New York, an 87-feet-diameter sphere that appears to float inside a glass cube.
  • American Association of Variable Star Observers, or AAVSO, is a group of astronomers that follow variable stars (stars with varying brightness). They have centuries-long trails of changes in brightness, and it is available on their website
  • Planet-finding machines like Keplar have websites where you can source data and even help them find more planets (check planethunters.org)

“There are three planets to be seen right now,” Neeraj adds, “If you go up to your terrace at 9 pm or 10 pm, you will see Jupiter and Saturn. Around midnight, you will start seeing Mars. Venus will be available in the morning sky, around 4.30 am. These four are the only naked-eye planets.”

Capture a star

Your at-home guide to the stars, planets and comets

 

Photographing these wonders is different from seeing them. “You don’t need a telescope for this, you can do it with a decent SLR or DSLR camera and lens,” says Ajay. “Focal length is the least important factor — you can use a 35, 50 or even 85 millimetre lens; I used an 8 millimetre fish eye lens to capture the entire night sky. What is most important, is composition.” In fact, Ajay will be teaching all of this on Friday, at an online workshop organised by Mysore Astronomical Society.

Adds Neeraj, “There are additional camera accessories, like connectors, that you can use to attach your DSLR to your telescope. The idea is to put the camera in place of the telescope’s eyepiece, so that the camera’s sensor captures the image. With T-rings and T-adaptors, your telescope basically acts as the lens for your camera. You will have to check brand compatibilities.”

It isn’t all that simple, he cautions, but with some practice, and a lot of patience, you will be set to capture the sky.

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