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Unlocking the joy of stargazing amid Lockdown

While social distancing and staying at home is a key for effective counter-attack against the pandemic, the sudden and drastic change in social lives has taken a toll on many. The sudden captivity, deserted streets and dubious future enhanced anxiety in most of us. My story wasn’t any different as I was confined to a self-imposed house-arrest like the rest of the world, along with my two flatmates!


To my happiness, our rented house offers the enchanting scenic beauty of Dehradun valley, situated in the foothills of Western Himalaya made the confinement easy-breezy with Mussoorie and Sarkunda Devi range in North, stunning greenery of Rajaji Tiger Reserve in South, a populated city in the North and East and sports complex of our research institution in the West.



Soon, spending our evenings sipping a cup of coffee at our terrace and enjoying the bounties of nature became a routine to break the monotony of the day. While nature was propitious, the joy came down in bucketloads from the sky with great visibility due to much lessen pollution.


On one fine evening routine of April month, I happened to notice a dazzling star in the skies towards the west. It was so bright that we could see it even in the twilight. After sighting for a while, I reluctantly commented whether it could be a planet. We then spent some time using the phones to add more credibility to the claims of this being a planet, but the effort soon proved to be futile.


I couldn’t resist myself from taking a few photographs by stabilizing my camera using every possible prop. It turned out that it wasn’t just a lonely bright star, there was a spectacular star cluster just beside this. My curiosity just grew without bounds and binoculars (Nikon Monarch 5 8X42) were my next weapon choice to gaze at the stars. In no time, the curiosity grew into a mystery!


Empowered with my limitless eagerness to unlock this mystery, I pondered on the internet for a while. I was thrilled to learn that I was looking at Venus, the brightest object in the evening sky, and the Pleiades star cluster alongside. This star-planet close conjunction happens once in eight years. I was too overwhelmed by my discovery and this made me spend a whole day reading about gazing stars and planets.


I spent the next few days with my research on gazing stars and planets, and with my renewed knowledge of directions, other visible planets and using equipment, I was ready for the next hunt. I was so determined to spot more planets that I didn’t sleep the whole night.


Based on a few readings, four planets had the best visibility in the predawn sky (in April) and it was my time to take the terrace and conquer the skies! To my surprise, my calculations were bang on, I was able to spot three planets right where I expected them to be! For a hardcore Biologist who has struggled with physics and navigations all throughout life, this was a huge win. The three planets I gazed at were Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.


Even before I realized, the joy of exploring the skies had captivated me, there was no ending to the curiosity to explore the wonders of the skies deeper and further. My next hunt was to zoom in on each of the planets I earlier gazed at in order to unfold more exciting facts!

Geared with my equipments which corresponds Nikon p900 camera, I started zooming in on Jupiter and indeed, there were four moons of Jupiter. It was incredible to see the extent of detailing from the camera's pictures. Then, I moved onto zoom in on Saturn and Mars. Saturn's stunning rings and Mars dressed in radiating red was nothing short of an experience of a lifetime.


While this exploration was very satisfying, it didn’t inhibit my ambition to explore more and Mercury was next on the list! Finally, after one month of pondering the skies, Mercury emerged as an evening star (in May) right above the horizon and near Venus. My endeavour also led to the sighting of a few constellations such as Orion, Ursa Major, Bootes, Taurus, Gemini, Leo, Scorpius and a few more.



Boötes constellation
Boötes constellation




Supermoon rising from the Dehradun Valley
Supermoon rising from the Dehradun Valley

Stargazing is a kind of meditation which connects me with the universe. Keeping the morale high during the lockdown was hard and this habit kept me enthusiastic and productive. We have so many opportunities around us waiting to be accepted and explored. It filled me with contemplations that nature’s force is working on from the tiniest to the giant to work in order. May it be a microscopic non-living virus to mutate in its host or the giant stars to shine or planets to orbit around the Sun. Maybe is a blessing in disguise, the lockdown gave a forced opportunity connecting ourselves within and accepting our truest nature. We, human species, are the most fortunate who have been given an opportunity to spend a fraction of time on this beautiful planet and we should creatively make the best use of every possibility.

 

Acknowledgements: I thank Aman Mangal https://amanmangal.net/ for his initiative and constant encouragement, Karthik Rao https://twitter.com/hackintoshrao for his vigorous efforts in draft editing, and Kritika Goyal https://www.kritikagoyal.com/ for helping with the website. You all made this process trouble-free.

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