Visit to Nehru Planetarium 01-01-2009

I thought it was a good way to mark the International Year of Astronomy by going to a venue where the general public in Mumbai readily associate with Astronomy – Nehru Planetarium. I reached there around 1130 hrs in the morning expecting to catch up if there was a global solar observation campaign at mid-day. There was none, so I caught up with the Discovery of India exhibition at the Nehru Centre nearby. They don’t allow photography inside, but that’s good because it’s a free entry exhibition that anyone who visits Mumbai should see. It’d be best to see it not as a part of packaged tour mode.

Well, the Planetarium looked pretty normal. No written note informing us about the International Year of Astronomy. The Planetarium book store is also pretty ordinary. As a child, I remembered seeing better telescopes and binocs than the current ones kept on display. The companies were non-descripit. The Indian telescope companies like Tejraj were missing or were they in a store room somewhere? They do keep basic stuff like star charts etc. Then there are lots of comic and cookery books. I actually saw two ladies go in there and buy cookery books! From a Planetarium!

Going inside, I expected a verbal mention of International Year of Astronomy in the talk given at the foyer where you’re basically introduced to the solar system and get to see the lunar and martian surfaces and weighing yourself on Earth, a few of the planets, the Sun and the Moon (it’s a bit goofy but fun). I actually saw a man showing his weights on different planets and trying to explain to him the effect gravity had on weight but not on mass. That was quite cool, I thought and in that way, I guess that exhibit did serve some purpose besides fun!

Dr. Piyush Pandey, the Director of the Planetarium is on the Outreach Committee of IYA 2009 celebrations in India, for which IUCAA is the nodal agency. So, I really did expect some mention of it at his Planetarium. I did see him but didn’t want to disturb him as he was entertaining some guests. Mr. Manoj Pai of the Confederation of Indian Amateur Astronomers (CIAA) later told me that in a press note released by IUCAA said that India’s IYA 2009 inaugration is happening on 10th January 2009 in Pune.

Next up was the short video on Kalpana Chawla. This video has been shown since the tragic Columbia disaster in 2003. It has now been added with a small list of an astronomical presentation (astronomy institutions, celestial events etc.). I thought that Kalpana Chawla video would have served as a wonderful introduction to the perseverance of mankind in exploring outer space. That despite such disasters, man will go back to outer space and that the loss of her life would be used as a lesson to prevent such disasters in the future. This would have also been a good introduction to India’s own human space flight programme. The training complex will be in Bangalore and all the budding astronauts in the large child audience there could have learnt that they now didn’t have to go to NASA to become an astronaut! Missed oppertunities.

On the way to the sky theatre are ofcourse various outer space images and Indian space craft exhibits. Got a wonderful seat and watched the Planetarium’s 33rd show called “Secrets of the Sun & Conquest of the Moon”. So, we did see the Sun using SOHO images in ultraviolet! Telescope with filters might have been more fun, but what the heck. They also showed a Chandrayaan 1 animation they had prepared for the launch, which showed the space craft reaching the moon in 5.5 days instead of the longer 15 day trek that took it there in reality. The show was prepared before the launch and I’m sure they would not have anticipated ISRO’s change of launch strategy at the time they made this. The animation of the Moon Impact Probe was much more believeable than the ones we saw on TV during the event on November 14.

These presentations do cost a lot of money to make. Each show costs the Planetarium about Rs. 5-10 lakh rupees. I put forth this idea with Mr. Rathore, with whom I had 5 min discussion about possibly involving student volunteers to make these shows. It’s an experience for the kids and might cut atleast some cost for the Planetarium. I also recently read on a mailing list I’m on that Indian Planetariums are really under-funded to the extent of not having standard and sound academic journals. Really tough times for these guys. It would be great if bollywood stars or industrialists with some interest in astronomy, donate to these institutions of science.

Anyway, the last scene showed a possibility of Indian astronaut setting up a robotic telescope facility on the Moon for India to explore the skies. India does have some experience with robotic facilities since its observatory at Hanle, Jammu & Kashmir, the second highest observatory in the world, is controlled from the south Indian city of Bangalore by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. They would probably do more of the control when India launches Astrosat (telescopes on satellite with capability of viewing an object on all wavelengths simultaneously) later this year or next year.

All in all, the next decade might just become the golden era of Indian Space Exploration, possibly not as path breaking scientifically as Aryabhata’s prediction of heliocentricity, eclipse and planetary orbit predictions, but definitely a technological boost for the country. I really hope that Indian planetaria uses IYA 2009 to improve themselves and present a better experience to the general Indian public. In an era of Discovery Channel, YouTube and several online resources, it is difficult to survive or thrive but it is an experience for the kids equalled only by a trip to space!

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