It was the sight of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope by the Space Shuttle Discovery on Discovery Channel that shifted my interest from archaeology to astronomy. After the lift-off the Discovery Channel proceeded to show some of the fascinating images that the Hubble captured. I was in awe.
This anecdote also holds the confusion I held for the longest time. I did not know if I wanted to do astronomy or build rockets that would launch people and telescopes into orbit. I am not sure if I still have an answer to this question. The move towards engineering was pragmatic and not based on interest.
After marriage, my wife was interested in the bright objects in the night sky and did not mind me watching rocket launches because Indian rocket launches were few and far between. They were not as frequent as the SpaceX launches of today of almost one a week.
When our daughter was born in 2017, I told my wife that I will introduce our daughter to the night sky but wouldn’t try to push my hobbies on her. Keeping my promise, I had only introduced my 5 year-old daughter to the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Of these, my daughter only has trouble distinguishing between Jupiter and Saturn when they are both present in the night sky.
When the astronomy club in Pune, Jyotirvidya Parisanstha (JVP) organized a star party for the public, I forgot this promise to my wife and registered both of us (our daughter and myself) for the same. My wife could not travel as she had just given birth to our son last December.
I decided against going by car as I was not familiar with the location. We decided to travel in the bus provided by JVP.
We landed up around 4 pm at Shalimar Furniture at Swar Gate in Pune. We arrived there travelling in an Uber. My daughter was already impatient with the slow progress of our journey to the location of the Star Party.
I had told my daughter that we were going for a star party. The only other party she had attended thus far were three to four hour long birthday parties of her friends who all stayed in our neighborhood, which she reached in 20 minutes at the most. She would spend time at the birthday party playing with her friends or having samosas and snacks. She was excited nonetheless.
This Star Party was not her kind of party.
We travelled in a Tata Motors bus to a village in the outskirts of Pune called Naigaon. This was on the Pune – Bangalore Highway a little beyond the gate of Khed Shivpur about an hour from Swar Gate. The Star Party was held at Manali Agro Farm.
First up, it lived up to it’s name. It was probably colder than it was in Manali. My daughter had to wear her thermals, t-shirt, sweater and a blanket before she could shiver and speak. I only had an athleisure t-shirt and a sweater protecting me. JVP had warned in their email invitation and the programme that it would be very cold. The name also should have given ample warning and we should have probably prepared with winter wear we might have carried had we travelled to Manali.
As the team at JVP was setting up their telescopes (2 Cassegarian, 2 Newtonians and a Dobsonian), we spotted a few fast moving satellites in their orbit. They were most likely Earth observation satellites taking pictures of Earth from their perch in space. I also spotted the planet Venus with my daughter.
Venus was the first planet that the telescopes pointed to as people formed lines in front of them. We missed seeing the planet through the telescope. As the planet set in the western sky, we had the opportunity to see Jupiter and three of its moons through the telescope. I was not sure my daughter would be able to see the moons through the telescope but was happy when she could spot them easily.
Sarang then showed the constellations in the night sky with a pointer. We saw the body of Pegasus the Winged Horse, Cetus the Sea Monster, and spoke to us about Raashis and Nakshatras. I had heard these terms and now knew their significance and meaning.
He later shared stories from Indian and Greek mythologies. He had immense energy that comes from knowledge and passion. He spoke endlessly through the evening and then later in the night. He flawlessly mixed sharing the science of the night sky, the art of storytelling, and a healthy skepticism.
My daughter and I were able to see the Moon through the telescope. She described it as seeming like cheese. I told her about craters without delving too much into its violent history. She saw both the Moon and Jupiter through one of the Cassegarins. The other Cassegarin of the pair was having a hard time tracking in the beginning though the volunteers were able to fix it later in the night.
She did not eat any food at night. I ate the delicious Marathi dinner at the farm. There were a few slides and swings in the park but they were too cold to even sit on. She was immensely disappointed and spent the rest of the night sleeping on my lap. I did not feel confident about laying the mat on the floor and letting her sleep there ergo many people did.
I missed seeing the Pleiades (Rohini) and the Orion nebula through the telescope they had set out at night.
We reached in time as one of the JVP team members talked about imaging the comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) and how he stacked images one on top of the other and used software to get an image of the comet. The comet’s tail had grown faint in the image and it’s core also seemed to have broken. It was great to see a comet but were disappointed that we missed seeing it in all its glory.
A little past four in the morning, I wasn’t sure our cold protection systems could keep us protected from the cold any longer. So, I headed to the bus with a few of the other parents and caught up on some sleep. Although I was awake most of the night, I am not sure if I could stay awake most of the night.
Some of the other people missed Sarang’s story sessions and caught some well deserved sleep and spent the early morning watching the sky. We missed that part but I was happy that I could brush up on both my astronomy and mythological knowledge.
The star party was over at 7 in the morning and we headed back to Swar Gate around 7:30 am.