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Friday, July 10, 2020

Crazy about space? Plan a stargazing vacation to watch meteor showers in the night sky

What we witnessed was like celestial fireworks—almost two shooting stars per minute. They seem to diverge from a single spot in the sky, called the radiant, located in the constellation Gemini but can be seen all across the sky.

Updated: December 29, 2018 3:13:56 pm
geminid meteor shower, stargazing A Geminid meteor in the starry night sky. (Representational image. Source: Getty Images)

By Ritika Jain

Recently, I had the privilege to attend a sort of ‘beginner’s guide to astronomy’ workshop in Sariska. It also happened to be the weekend the Geminid meteor shower was visible to the naked eye and it peaked on December 14th. An annual event, it was first recorded roughly 200 years ago. What we witnessed was only possible because of the cooperation of the resort we stayed at.

Stargazing requires you to have a completely dark sky, with no light pollution that a city usually has. Kudos to the staff of Jungle Camp Sariska, who switched off all the lights so that the astro-tourists could adapt their eyes to the dark. A lot of attendees were families with children, and the programme was structured to be simple enough for kids to enjoy as well. It started with a basic introduction to common terms like constellations and asterisms, and went on to teach about mapping stars like the Polaris to find the correct direction in the night. We even got to touch part of a meteorite, probably the oldest thing any of us had ever touched.

Later, we all stayed up (albeit shivering) till 2 am in what was a practical science class—only it was the most fun class ever! What we witnessed was like celestial fireworks—almost two shooting stars per minute. They seem to diverge from a single spot in the sky, called the radiant, located in the constellation Gemini but can be seen all across the sky. We used torches covered with red paper because apparently that’s how you scatter the least amount of light. We learnt about the difference between a meteor, comet and asteroid. And about the zenith and nadir, altitude and aziruth. We saw the surface of the moon and a nebula through a telescope. A bonus was the sighting of the bright green comet 46P in the constellation Orion, also a rare occurrence.

The organising team, Astrowanderers, are a bunch of astronomy enthusiasts with varied backgrounds who’ve come together to educate people about environment sensitivity, especially the importance of preserving the night sky. By organising these trips and showing people first-hand how amazing the night sky is, they also stimulate in them a sense of responsibility besides creating tourism opportunities in places that have naturally wide horizons and probably want to preserve the environment as it is. This is true for locals of nearby village Murlipura, whose inhabitants are simple farmers. Even television is a rarity here.

meteor shower, stargazing The writer at the adventure camp, to watch the Geminid meteor shower.

According to Abhinav P Dubey, the founding member of Astrowanderers, there is a celestial event every month that they have the opportunity to plan a trip around. They also introduce people to astrophotography and take some group pictures with the heavens as the backdrop. There is music around a bonfire, hiking opportunities and day excursions to the fabled 17th century Bhangarh fort and Mansarovar lake. The area has 93 recorded bird species and the national park is home to a variety of species including antelopes, wild boars, hyenas and even carnivorous leopards and other jungle cats. We saw a lot of peafowl nesting in the mustard fields lining Sariska along with other birds like kingfishers, jungle babblers and magpies. We also had the opportunity to see the antics of the langurs and macaques at the Hanuman temple at Bhangarh. Shiva devotees often visit the Naldeshwar shrine off the highway, and the Pandupol temple inside the reserve is said to date back to the Mahabharata. All in all, it’s a perfect culture/nature trip that puts a lot of things in perspective.

Sariska also has other camps like Astroport where amateur astronomers have access to all the necessary equipment required for astronomical research, like telescopes, star charts and cameras as well as an observatory. They host school groups for educational programmes and have a number of interesting themes coming up, including life in a jungle, fossil finds, backyard bugs, etc. Offsite activities include visiting the Bat Point or Crocodile Point at Siliserh Lake, picnic at Mangalsar Dam, cycling in the Aravalis and visiting the Alwar Fort.

EdTerra is a Delhi-based education travel company that offers highly specialised summer camps in Chamba. One can pre-register for a six-day astronomy camp under two age groups—12 to 14 and 14 to 16. It also gives budding astronomers a chance to engage in team-building exercises as well as assembling their own telescopes to take home. Well-known in the community, head educator Rishabh Jain is also an ace astrophotographer. His work has been featured in popular magazines and websites like BBC Earth. The camps accommodate a group of 30 kids, with 4-6 kids per tent. There is separate accommodation for girls and boys, and the adult-child ratio while travelling is 1:10. Safety being of paramount importance, each staff member is qualified to administer First Aid.

SPACE is another organisation offering space explorer workshops and a space astronomy club membership in the NCR. These clubs have been running successfully since 2001 in over 250 schools of Delhi. They are also active in other cities of India including Chennai, Ludhiana, Meerut and Surat. They make science simple to understand and spark your imagination through innovative, fun projects that are taught by knowledgeable, friendly people to provide a memorable experience. As a member, students can also participate in national and international competitions and projects organised by SPACE, NASA, ESA and RSA, ISRO, etc.

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