The stars have held us in their thrall since the dawn of man. But industrialisation and a rising materialism have stopped many from turning their eyes skyward, and Mumbai’s stargazers are shifting base well outside city limits.They are backpacking their way to places like Badlapur, Vangani, Manori and even Chincholi. Why? Because the night sky is hidden by a rarely-spoken-of pollution: light pollution.

Professor Mayank Vahia from TIFR’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics explains how dispersed light from malls and hoardings has ensured that people’s pupils don’t dilate; so they can’t see starlight.
Other astronomers echo the sentiment citing what they call “catastrophic development” as the reason the night sky is veiled to cosmic searchers by skyglow.

Skyglow is a kind of light pollution, visible by the “glowing” effect seen in the skies over cities and towns. Due to skyglow, people who live in urban areas cannot see the Milky Way. Fainter sights like the Zodiacal Lights and the Andromeda Galaxy are nearly impossible to focus on, even with telescopes.

STAR GAZING

For telescope manufacturer Raju Patel, the ebbing interest in astronomy grates. “Very few people buy telescopes today. I started making telescopes when I was 16 and now after 33 years I have my own business,” says Patel, who also believes light pollution is the culprit. He claims the pollution has made it necessary for amateur astronomers to purchase special filters, which cost around Rs5,700 a piece.

“Without the filter one can only see Saturn, Jupiter and the moon,” says Patel. “So most people prefer going as far from Mumbai as possible.”

Patel has been taking direct sky photographs for the last 10 years and has a huge collection of 350. “But no one appreciates them,” he rails. “They are just sitting in my cupboard. Today I am selling telescopes to amateurs.”

Several amateur astronomy clubs in the city, however, are seeing a spurt in new young members. “Some teenagers have a certain curiosity about the stars, planets, and constellations, but school-level books destroy all hopes of nurturing their interest,” says Bharat Adur director of Akash Ganga, an astronomy club that has been around for more than 30 years.

“Children in the rural interior of India are more astronomically inclined, as they constantly look at the constellations to predict the rain,” he adds.

The Nehru Planetarium sees an average of 1,500 visitors every day, and has a largely youthful audience.

“The planetarium is within city limits, and we have a large number of people who travel to Mumbai to visit it. For rudimentary astronomy, Worli is a good place to view celestial bodies like the moon. But if you want to do some serious astronomy then you have to leave the city,” say Piyush Pandey, director of the Nehru Planetarium.

India is increasingly gazing to the heavens to expand its global clout, and in order for it to succeed in its venture it will have to rely on all the budding astronomers and astrophysicists it has. Anyone for another batti bandh?

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