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These Indians chase stars and blackholes

September 04, 2017 08:50 IST

The astrophotography community in India is a fast-growing one.
Nikita Puri meets the pioneers of the niche but fascinating interest.

Astrophotography at Astroport

Astrophotography at Astroport in Rajasthan.
Photographs: Kind courtesy @astroportindia/Facebook

 

All evening during his talk in Bengaluru, Johann Nishant has been showing photographs of astronomical landmarks, like the constellation Orion against giant red columns of hydrogen gas (nebulae) and interstellar dust.

Nishant, 22, specialises in photographing dark skies, and he's addressing members of the Association of Bangalore Amateur Astronomers.

One of his "less prettier" is the one that continues to give him "goosebumps". It appears to be a random set of stars, but one of these "stars" here isn't a star at all: It's a quasar.

Luminous and powerful, quasars are powered by super-massive blackholes.

Located in the constellation of Virgo and called 3C 273, this quasar is 2.4 billion light years away.

"It is one of the brightest objects in the universe, so much so that if it were to come closer to us, it'd outshine the sun," says Nishant.

Nishant's interest in astrophotography (photography of celestial objects) comes from the time when he chanced upon a picture of the Andromeda Galaxy.

What surprised him was that one didn't need to attach the camera to a telescope to photograph this spiral galaxy.

Named after the mythical princess Andromeda, one can see this with the naked eye on dark, moonless nights.

The recently-opened Astroport, near Rajasthan's Sariska Tiger Reserve, regularly sees adults and children bunching around telescopes to get a clear glimpse of Andromeda, Jupiter, and more.
 
 
 

City lights dull our experience of the night sky.

Places around wildlife parks, which are by their nature free of urbanisation, are ideal places to see these mesmerising views, explains Sachin Bahmba, founder of SPACE (Science Popularisation Association of Communicators and Educators) Group.

Bahmba is also the founder of Astroport, India's first space experience tourism destination.

The recently opened Astroport, near Rajasthan's Sariska Tiger Reserve, regularly sees adults and children bunching around telescopes to get a clear glimpse of Andromeda, Jupiter, and more.

Astroport also has satellite-building workshops and cosmos-introductory sessions.

Top favourites for astrophotography in India include Hatu Peak (Himachal Pradesh), Devasthal (Uttarakhand), the Great Rann of Kutch (Gujarat), Jaisalmer, Sariska and Alwar in Rajasthan, Ladakh (especially Hanle village), and forested areas like the Western Ghats.
 
 

Though the astrophotography community today is a fast-growing one, "till about a few years ago, I could have counted India's astrophotographers on my fingers," says Bahmba.

"This kind of photography requires clear skies, free of dust and ambient light. Although from the city you can shoot bright planets and the moon, stars are difficult," says Ajay Talwar, an astrophotographer for over 25 years.

Talwar organises the Sky Photo Trip in Majkhali, a village in the Himalayas.

Often, Talwar's group's quest is to spot the Zodiacal Light, a rare, faint light from interstellar dust scattered in the solar system.

Both Bahmba and Talwar are eclipse-chasers who flew to the United States to document the recent total solar eclipse.

But one needn't wait for the next eclipse or head out to Europe to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) for jaw-dropping astrophotographs.

Top favourites for astrophotography in India include Hatu Peak (Himachal Pradesh), Devasthal (Uttarakhand), the Great Rann of Kutch (Gujarat), Jaisalmer, Sariska and Alwar in Rajasthan, Ladakh (especially the Hanle village), and forested areas like the Western Ghats.

"You can use regular DSLR cameras for astrophotography. It's only when you want to photograph deep sky objects like faraway galaxies and distant nebulae (cloud and dust in outer space) that you need a telescope," says Navaneeth Unnikrishnan, another astrophotographer.

Twice a year, Unnikrishnan heads to the cold desert mountains of the Spiti valley to initiate beginners into night photography; his own introduction to it happened only about four years ago, when he unknowingly photographed the Milky Way from his backyard in Kozhikode, Kerala.

"Most people have never really seen the sky because they live in cities," says Unnikrishnan.

Heading to places like Astroport is the only way to leave behind the glare of artificial lights and truly see the night sky.

Nikita Puri in Bengaluru
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