This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published February 17, 2021
Madhavan Parthasarthy was five years old, standing on a balcony in his house overlooking the backyard in New Delhi, India with his older cousin Hema when she said, “Look up.”
“She said, ‘That is how you find Orion. There are the three stars that form the belt, and the three stars that form the sword...’” he says.
The constellation in the night sky left him awestruck.
He moved with his family to the United States later that year. Another of his cousins, years later, showed him how to make a homemade telescope with cardboard tubes, some black paint, a couple of lenses from an Edmund Optics catalog, and lots of duct tape.
“I saw all sorts of cool things that blew my mind,” he recalls. “I was about 11.”
Then, life happened. High school. College. Work took him to Dubai, where he wrote a column for the local paper on astronomy; then to Indonesia; then to South Africa, where he looked up one night and saw the legendary Southern Cross; and then back to the United States where he chose Madison his hometown.
He maintained his interest in the night skies, but his family, his job, and other interests and responsibilities took up his time and held most of his attention.
About a year ago, when it became clear the pandemic was shutting down life as we knew it, he was sitting in his home in downtown Madison, “just bored. I can’t play tennis. I can’t go out,” he says.
Sure, he had lived all over the world but, now, “I’m petrified of just going across the street to the grocery store. So I said, ‘What can I do and stay safe?’ I pulled out my old telescope and put it up on the back deck. I started looking at Orion and all of these constellations.”
He felt the same sense of awe he first felt when he was five years old.
“It was February or March of last year, people were posting doom and gloom everywhere. I shared that fear...And there I was under this black canopy. It was just awe inspiring. And I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to post some really cool things, maybe it’ll distract all these people posting doom and gloom.’”
A Burst of Activity
Kristine Larsen, Ph.D., a professor of astronomy in the Geological Sciences Department of Central Connecticut State University and editor of The Astronomical League’s Reflector magazine says the past year has seen a burst of activity in amateur astronomers sharing their love of the skies, encouraging others to just look up between dusk and dawn.
“Companies and people who sell telescopes can’t keep them on the shelves,” she says. “People are buying stuff, not even knowing how to use it.”
Larsen will be giving a talk on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. for the Essex Library Association titled, “What’s Up? Backyard Astronomy for 2021 (and Beyond),” that will focus on how people can get started and special treats the skies have in store for us over the next year. Registration is required and can be made by visiting www.youressexlibrary.org.
For those newly enamored of the night skies, sometimes the first urge is to run out and buy something.
“But, basically, I tell people not to jump into buying a telescope,” she says. “There’s a lot to it. If you go cheap, you will be disappointed. You have to do your research, and it’s an investment. You want a good quality instrument. It’s like buying a car. There is no perfect car. There is just the perfect car for you.”
Start small, she says.
“Start with your eyes,” she says. “Go out and learn some constellations. Then maybe move on to some smart phone apps. You can point your phone at the sky and it will tell you what is there.”
She pauses for a moment, lets out a small sigh. With all of her expertise and appreciation for sophisticated equipment, she’s more of an old-fashioned, planisphere star-finder kind of astronomer. A planisphere is a circular star chart often made of cardboard with an overlay that rotates around a pivot point that reveals bright stars, constellations, sometimes, deep-sky objects. They were used as far back as the 1600s, some say longer.
It’s very analog.
“Apps are kind of like cheating,” she says, finally. “But if people like that, I’m cool with that.”
Her advice? “Grab an old pair of binoculars. The ones you use to look at the birds, or in the nosebleed seats at the football game....Something that people don’t realize is that Galileo’s first telescope was no more powerful than a pair of binoculars is today and he was able to discover stuff you can’t see with your eyes. So start there.”
She also recommends joining The Astronomical League, even as an at-large member, and joining an observing program, or even checking out the lists of objects that can be found in the night skies.
“It can be kind of like a scavenger hunt for the sky,” she says. “Here are the 100 best double stars, go find them. Here are the 100 best star clusters, go find them. If you want to get serious, you can actually earn certificates and pins. I finished several. I have a certificate and a pin.”
In her many years of watching and studying the skies, she’s had many awestruck moments. She remembers warning a colleague about the power of a solar eclipse and then, looking over, seeing that “she was literally laying on the ground weeping in the totality” when the sun was totally obscured.
To view eclipses, she’s traveled to Egypt, China, Australia, the Faroe Islands, and, once, “We ended up in a mega-church parking lot in Marion, Illinois. We were looking for clear skies and that’s where we ended up.”
She’s already planning for April 8, 2024, when a total solar eclipse will trace a narrow path across 13 U.S. states, including parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
“It’s definitely a car ride away...make your travel plans now,” she advises. “The last time, hotels sold out years in advance.”
As for the coming year in Connecticut she gives the following recommendations:
• Keep an eye out for Saturn. “Saturn never disappoints.”
• In the pre-dawn skies on Wednesday, March 10, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mercury will be visited by the moon. “You can go out and see all three, the planets and the moon, right before sunrise,” she says.
• On Thursday, June 10, there will be a Ring of Fire Solar Eclipse. It will only be about 80 percent eclipsed in Connecticut, but still a sight to see, she says. Eclipse glasses recommended by a reputable astronomical society are essential, of course.
• On Friday, Nov. 19, there will be a partial lunar eclipse that will affect 95 percent of the moon. “That’s going to be cool.”
She also says “the sun is coming out of its doldrums,” and so there may be more sunspots, which may mean a greater chance to see the Northern Lights. “We haven’t had much by way of a display recently, but over the next few years we are going to have more chances.”
And always be on the lookout for things you might not expect, she says, “like a comet.”
Meteor showers can be amazing, if viewing conditions are right. This coming year watch for the following:
• The Lyrid Meteor Shower peak night will be April 21 and 22, but the moonlight might make them hard to see.
• The Perseids peak night will be Aug. 11 and 12 and while they are not the strongest shower of the year, they are fun to watch because, if the weather cooperates, it’ll be a warm summer night. There could be up to 50 to 75 meteors a night on a peak night, and the moon will be cooperating this time.
• The Geminids, with peak nights of Dec. 13 and 14, will be the strongest shower of the year, but the moon will be nearly full, cutting down on the chances of a spectacular show.
Look for a dark spot to view the skies, Larsen says, and “I would always recommend to people, look up and remember that even something as simple as turning off a porch light when you’re not using it will help you see the night sky. There is so much unnecessary light pollution. If we all do our part, we can save energy, cut down on our carbon footprint, save money, and see the night sky. It’s all good.”
Making the Connection
Parthasarthy, on his quest to share the night skies with others in his community, started posting his pictures online, got a great response, and was inspired to keep going. Early on, when so much was still unknown about the pandemic, he upgraded his camera equipment, and got up the nerve to leave his house and head down to the town’s Surf Club. He captured Orion against the backdrop of a magnificent home on Longshore Drive, connecting the vastness of the night sky with his hometown.
As enthusiasm for his work online grew, “it became a game,” he says, “I went all over town, different places,” connecting the skies above with the earth below.
He connected the Milky Way with the gazebo on East Wharf. Sunsets on West Wharf, out on the rocks, captured nearly lying in the water. A super moon rising over the water.
And every day at dawn and dusk, he says, there is the constant gift of sunrise and sunset. He loves both, but favors sunrises.
“I tend to forget everything else on my mind,” he says. “Bills. COVID. College tuition. For those 15 minutes, I don’t think about any of those things.”
He says to be sure to get outside 15 minutes before sunrise and to stay at least 15 minutes after sunset to fully enjoy the effect.
“Every second the light changes. And the next second it changes again,” he says. “Peach. Then pink. Then red. And you turn away and look back and it’s something completely different.”
He says it’s a real life lesson in mindfulness and paying attention to exactly what is in front of you at that time.
“Whatever happened is gone, you are enjoying what is in front of you in that moment, and then it’s done,” he says. “There is peace and joy in exactly that moment.”
He’s currently at work on Project Sol, capturing a sunrise and sunset in each state, work he hopes to capture as a collection beginning and starting with his hometown. He also is planning trips to far flung spots to view astronomical events coming up.
As for taking pictures, his first tip is that when you see something beautiful, “just take the bloody shot and worry about the settings afterwards.” As you get more experience, experiment with focus, and make sure you learn how to get that right in a timely manner. Even with a good camera, you likely will have to use manual focus.
And, he says, be sure to connect the skies with something here on earth.
“When I’m taking a shot, the sun is not the subject of my photo. Orion is not the subject of my photo. The moon is not the subject of my photo,” he says. “They are the supporting actor. That is all. They get best supporting actor, that is for sure. But my subject is the gazebo. Or the red barn. Or the house.”
In other words, connect the world right around you with what you see when you look up.
“Something should be recognizable. Show me the waves crashing. Or the boulder where I like to sit. Because I want to be part of your picture. I want to place myself in your photo,” he says. “If you show me a place I recognize, you’re pulling me into that photo. And the emotional connection goes sky high.”
To find out more about The Astronomical League and Reflector magazine, visit www.astroleague.org/reflector. To find out more about the work of Madhavan Parthasarthy, visit www.discoverthenight.com.