Discovering the wonders of stargazing
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN WOWED THE cinematic world recently with his stupendous movie ‘Interstellar’.
Besides the film’s brilliant, mind-boggling plot, Nolan pulled our focus skywards to the celestial objects out there like the stars, galaxies and planets.
For those of us with more modest aspirations, a couple of groups here – Sultan Iskandar Planetarium (PSI) and Sarawak Astronomical Society (SAS) – shared their interest with the public by giving a talk at the second Santubong Nature Festival (SNF) on Nov 8 at Permai Rainforest Resort.
PSI and SAS joined together to give a talk on astronomy to some 30 participants. Due to the cloudy weather, however, none of the hopeful stargazers who attended the talk that night were able to see a single constellation in the sky that night.
But by using Stellarium, a free open source software that depicts the sky in 3D, simulate what can be seen with the naked eye, binoculars or telescope, SAS exco member Rambli Ahmad was able to explain the basics of how to look and spot constellations with the naked eye.
Rambli started by telling the audience the legend of Perseus from Greek mythology.
Perseus, the son of Zeus and mortal Danae, the daughter of Acrisius, was known for heroic acts by beheading the Gorgon Medusa and saving Andromeda from a sea monster.
He later married Andromeda, who is the daughter of Cassiopeia.
Rambli fascinated the audience with these mythological stories because Perseus, Andromeda and Cassiopeia were all constellations that the participants were supposed to see that night.
“If you look into the sky, you can see these stories,” he pointed out.
The reason why astronomy fascinated him, Rambli explained, was that “from astronomy alone, we can learn about chemistry such as what the sun is made of, physics when looking into the planet’s rotation and, of course, mythology.”
The constellation Perseus consists of 19 stars, depicting Perseus the hero.
To the west of Perseus is Andromeda, one of the largest constellations.
Within this Andromeda constellation, one should be able to spot a fuzzy-looking object.
“That is the Andromeda galaxy, the only galaxy we can see with the naked eye,” Rambli stated.
To the north of Perseus, one can spot Cassiopeia, one of the easily recognised constellations.
It looks like an ‘M’ – or a ‘W’, depending on where you are – and is formed by five bright stars. The constellation is meant to be Cassiopeia, Queen of Aethiopian, sitting in a chair.
One of the stories behind this particular constellation is that Cassiopeia, claiming to be more beautiful than the sea nymphs, was punished by Poseidon, the God of Sea, condemned to sit on her throne and forced to wheel around the North Celestial Pole, spending half of her time trying not to fall off.
But how do we know which constellation is where?
Rambli showed two charts that depicted the northern and southern constellations.
With these constellation charts, stargazers will be able to know which constellations will be visible and where they will be depending on the day or time.
These constellations charts are available online for free.
Besides the charts, he said that Google Sky Map, available on iOS and Android, is also very practical for stargazing.
When it comes to stargazing and spotting the constellations, the first thing to do is locate north and south. After that,try to find the constellations by comparing the chart and the night sky.
“You need to use your imagination and connect the star in lines to be able to spot the constellations,” Rambli reminded.
Thanks to Rambli, all amateur astronomers who attended the talk knew what they needed were a chart (or a smartphone app), a clear sky and a little imagination.
Are you interested in astronomy? Visit Sultan Iskandar Planetarium’s official website http://www.planetarium-sarawak.org/psi2/ to learn more about stargazing here in Kuching.