Sunday, December 21, 2014

Khagol Mandal - Sky Observation Workshop

Despite having slept just 3 hours in last 29 hours, I think it will be worth writing about my experience about yesterday's sky show organized by Khagol Mandal. To give you a little idea, as per their website, Khagol Mandal is -
Established in 1985 by handful of astronomy enthusiasts, the organization has grown into a membership of 1000+ within past 20 years. Khagol Mandal is a registered organization under "The Societies Act" as well as with "The Charity Commissioner, Mumbai". Strong volunteer base and continual activity is one of the strongest point of Khagol Mandal. Very soon we will enter 30 year of services to astronomy enthusiasts and we will soon come up with series of lectures and workshops to meet everyone's growing thirst for knowledge.

I had earlier attended their sky observation session in December, 2008. It was a good experience then and it got better this time. 

My friend and I started our journey from Dadar. I think it is important for me to mention that it is advisable to board the train at CST if you stay in south Mumbai. The Karjat train which we boarded was very crowded, even on a Saturday. Forget about sitting, it was difficult to even stand properly in the train. I am amazed how people travel from such a distance on daily basis for their livelihood. I finally got a seat by the time we reached Kalyan. Even when we alighted from the train, there was a lot of crowd still standing. 

Once we reached Vangani station, we met the KM volunteer and followed him to the destination. It was the same place which I had visited six years ago - Chavhan Farm House. We had pre-registered for the event for 4 people, however 2 of our friends had backed out. We told the volunteer about the same and he refunded the 2 cancelled bookings to us immediately. We settled down immediately in the field. My friend had brought his camera and tripod. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of use, as neither of us had any idea about Astro-photography. The facilities at the location were above average with clean loos and easy availability of water. We didn't have much trouble with mosquitoes as well. The pebbles in the area could be troublesome if you bring thinner mattress. A thick mattress is advisable. 

Coming to actual session, the workshop started as per schedule at 7.30 with the introduction to Telescopes. The volunteer, Pranit Deshmukh, informed us about the invention of telescope by Hans Lippershey. However, it was Galileo who actually made the use of telescopes for the astronomy famous. Then he informed us about the types of optical telescopes based on the their internal structures such as refractor based (Galilean) and reflection based (Newtonian). He also told us about the types of mounts used for telescopes such as Altazimuth (i.e. Altitude-Azimuth) and Equatorial mount. The use of viewfinder was also neatly explained. It was a short session which ended by 8. 

It was followed by a sky observation session by Vinita Navalkar. Unfortunately, at that time in the evening, the sky was clouded and we could hardly see any stars initially. However, till the time sky cleared, Vinita informed us about some of the basics of astronomy. For e.g. how are astronomical co-ordinates are defined, what is a celestial sphere and celestial coordinate system, equinox points, etc. After a while the sky started getting clearer and we could see a bunch of stars on the eastern side. They were the Aries, Taurus and Orion constellations. As Vinita explained, for many constellations it is very difficult to imagine the shape implied by their names. Aries was visualized at a broken hockey stick. The bull in Taurus wasn't that difficult to imagine. The hump of Pleiades cluster (Krittika Nakshatra in Marathi) was pretty clearly observable. In fact, I got the feeling that I got a better view of the cluster while it was out of focus of my line of sight. I discussed it with Hrushikesh Joglekar (one of my friend's brother and a long time member of KM) during the break, he told me that it is the case of "averted vision". My favorite constellation came next - Orion. I call it my favorite as I distinctly remember it from my previous sky observation. Four stars forming the body of Orion, the three stars forming the Orion's belt are easily identifiable. After the first sky observation session, the telescopes were set up for viewing objects in the sky - Pleiades, Orion Nebula. 

After dinner break, second sky observation session was started. The sky had cleared up and we could see a lot of stars in the western and northern region. We started with Cassiopeia, the M shaped constellation which is used to locate Polaris. We were informed that even though currently Polaris is the pole star. it wasn't so few thousand years back. As the Earth's axis keeps changing its inclination, the pole star also changes. In fact, at some time Thuban from Draco constellation was our pole star. We were shown, how to locate Polaris from Cassiopeia. We then moved to western front. We were shown the location of nearest galaxy i.e. Andromeda. We were told about the spiral arms of our galaxy. It was informed that our solar system lies on the bridge between 2 spiral arms of Milky Way, one of which is visible in clear skies away from cities - Sagittarius Arm (Which I saw at Nubra Valley). As we moved further, we saw a shooting star (Actually I missed it). That is when Vinita told us about Leonids. Over the next few hours till morning, we saw many shooting stars. Then we saw the brightest star in the sky - Sirius. The location of the star can be identified by extending the three stars of Orion's belt. The Jupiter had also risen by that time. After the session, we saw the Andromeda galaxy as a fuzzy object in the sky through the telescope. In another telescope, we saw Jupiter as a bright white circle with 2 vertical lines and three bright dots around it. The 3 dots were three of Jupiter's moons. We also saw comet Lovejoy with the bigger telescope.

We had a tea break after this. Thanks to my large NITIE Golden Jubilee mug (nice publicity, huh?), I had a lot of tea to keep myself warm. In fact, as the night progressed, it became colder and colder. The due made it much more harder to lie down on the mattress. After some hot tea, KM team started with their presentation. The presentation talked about the vastness of the universe and then moved to the world of atoms, protons and quarks. In terms of units, we started with meter, then moved to kilometer, Astronomical Unit (AU), light year and billions of light years. In visual terms, we moved from tree on earth to a country, to earth, to our solar system, galaxy, local group of galaxy and then billions of galaxies. Then we came to the unit meter. Now we started to zoom in the tree going in the negative powers of 10. Going from microns to Angstrom to picometer to femtometer to attomerer, we moved from cells to basic building blocks of matter - Quarks. It was an interesting presentation. After the PPT, Vinita took over for the quiz competition. It was a nicely compiled list of questions on variety of topics such as Eclipse, Satellites, planetary motions, galaxies, etc. At no point it felt boring to me. After the quiz, a Q&A session was conducted. KM team including Dr. Sagar Godambe, answered questions from various people including my question about Mercury's peculiar orbit. The Q&A session was followed by another Tea break. 

After the break we moved into the final sky observation session. During the session, we saw Saptarshi/Ursa Major/Big Deeper and how to identify Polaris from the same. KM team told us many interesting Greek/Indian mythological stories associated with the constellations. We were shown Canis Major which looks like a dog (hence "Canis"). We saw Leo constellation, which fits as a Lion pattern in the sky. During the explanation, we were told the meaning of Alpha, Beta stars in a constellation. We were told about the Gateway of Heaven, called so as Sun and all planets always pass through the imaginary boundary formed by these stars. Towards the end, we were shown the Hasta, Swati and Chitra Nakshtra, There was another constellation which formed the ice cream cone, whose Indian name I am not able to recollect or find on Google. We were shown Hydra constellation as well as few others which derive their name from snakes. Finally, we headed to the telescopes for one last time. This time we saw the "star pair" - Vashishta and Arudndhati, part of Saptarshi. We were told that these optical binary stars, as they are not physically close to each other, but are in such a position with respect to our line of sight that they appear together. Vashishta, in fact, is a multi-star system. We could see 2 binary stars in the telescope. Unfortunately, because of the due in the atmosphere, the bigger telescope could not be utilized. After the observations, the programme ended and we returned to Vangani station for the CST train. 

Overall, the workshop was a very good experience. It was very well managed and the interactive sessions added the needed thrust during late hours in the night. I didn't sleep at all during the whole workshop. Hopefully, I will visit KM sessions held every Wednesday at Sion.

I would also like to mention few observations regarding people who visit these workshops. Though it is obvious that we cannot expect 100% "interested" crowd, I still cannot fathom the fact that people keep ignoring the instructions given by KM people. It was written in the mails/passes for the workshop to use Red cellophane paper over the torch, but I hardly saw anyone else doing the same. What I also don't understand is the use of smartphones in the night. When you are asked not to use any lights during the telescopic observations, why do people keep checking their cell phones. That too at 3AM in the night! If you have to check time, use the damn watch!! Last but not the least, when you have a person speaking in front of 100 odd people, please don't make fun of him just because he says filler word like "Uh" too often. Just enjoy the content and not the way it is delivered. Just ask yourself, do you have the guts to step in front of so many people and say what he is saying.

Enough of the rants! If you want to see sky with different vision, then do visit the workshop once (but do follow all the instructions)!

On a side note, even though we were 60-70 km away from Mumbai city, the sky was nothing in comparison with what I saw at Ladakh. Milky Way was nowhere to be seen. I would definitely like to identify the constellations in that sky.

P.S. - In case, I have communicated any wrong information in this post, please let me know in the comment section, I will verify and correct the same. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

True That!

I think the writing of literature should give pleasure. What else should it be about? It is not nuclear physics. It actually has to give pleasure or it is worth nothing.
- Stephen Greenblatt

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Found this on Goodreads -

People do not change, they are merely revealed.
- Anne Enright