The dark side of Delhi’s night sky and how it eclipses the stargazer’s view

The dark side of Delhi’s night sky and how it eclipses the stargazer’s view

By VINEET GILL | | 5 September, 2015
Star trails over Delhi. | Photo: Antriksh Education
Erstwhile amateur astronomer Vineet Gill set out to explore the Delhi night sky, only to be left disappointed, defeated. Artificial light and, far worse, the thick cloud of air pollution in the city have left its sky hazy, virtually devoid of celestial objects.
Light is the worst enemy of the stargazer. Not the pure, organic light that is born in the sun and the stars, coming to us from light-years away — what would we do without all those pin-pricks of brightness filling up the firmament, those nuclear emissions? It is light as an urban phenomenon, aimed at dissolving the distinction between night and day, that offends the stargazer. Just look at the sky above Delhi once, and you’d be awestruck at the sheer emptiness of it. Yes, the Delhi sky is emptier than the universe: it’s a semi-opaque canopy of artificial light — filled with the depressingly morbid shades of black, maroon and iodine. And where have all the celestial objects vanished? Wait, here comes the giant and luminous gibbous moon, crown of the sky, spreading more light everywhere...
Things weren’t quite this bad a little over a decade ago, when I first became a member of the Delhi Amateur Astronomers Association (AAA). We were issued identification cards (laminated) that carried our names (not printed but handwritten). To have the word “astronomer” on an ID, albeit prefixed with that killjoy, deflating term “amateur”, was something of a childhood dream come true. You couldn’t become an amateur quantum physicist, for instance, or an amateur brain surgeon. But becoming an amateur astronomer was a cakewalk: you only had to develop a curiosity for the subject and, well, look above. 
We usually gathered on Sundays at the Nehru Planetarium in Delhi. (There were some very senior members who used to call the place the “planetorium” and still do; the pronunciation, I suspect, may have been inspired, or provoked, by the dome-shaped auditorium.) Basic stargazing lessons were imparted to those who were new: how to identify constellations and to trace a straight line to the pole star from Ursa Major, one of the most prominent constellations in our sky, part of which is shaped like a question mark. But there were days, back then, when even such basic exercises were impossible to carry out. I clearly remember a fellow AAA member once saying, “the sky here is absolute filth.”
Just look at the sky above Delhi once, and you’d be awestruck at the sheer emptiness of it. Yes, the Delhi sky is emptier than the universe: it’s a semi-opaque canopy of artificial light — filled with the depressingly morbid shades of black, maroon and iodine.
These words were very much on my mind when I recently decided to brave the filth of the Delhi sky and go stargazing around these parts. It seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, a futile, if not an idiotic quest. Back in my AAA days, we used to travel to the outskirts of the city. I remember when we once drove down to a small village in Haryana called Nuh. It was time for the Leonids meteor shower, and our task was to lie supine on the ground, eyes on the sky, and spot as many passing streaks of light — the meteorites — up in the moonless (I think) sky. It was a beautiful, cool and windy night. And every once in a while, we were hit by a surprisingly warm gust of air: which someone explained by pointing at the nearby hill that was reflecting, and energising, the cold winds.  
None of that — that exotic appeal of the wilderness, the Milky Way running from horizon to horizon — was in store for me at the site of my choosing for this recent night-sky exploit in Delhi. I had called Atish, my cousin, who is an astrophotographer and runs a science education firm in the city, for assistance. We decided to meet at the outskirts of Delhi, somewhere near Chattarpur, and our plan was to view, through an eight-inch Newtonian reflector-type telescope, the only visible planet at this time of year above our sky: the glorious Saturn.  
“Oh, but Saturn has just about set,” Atish told me when I reached the site of observation. When I protested — against what? The forces of the universe? — we decided to confirm the planet’s current orientation using a computer software. “So it’s about 20 degrees above the horizon now,” Atish said, and holding out his right hand, the thumb pointing above and the pinky down, he added, “this much is 20 degrees.”
And “this much” from the horizon was all but occupied by the buildings, trees and streetlights of Chattarpur. So Saturn, for the urban dweller, sets 20 minutes before schedule, behind the city’s skyline. 
We should have gone, I told my cousin, to Sohna or Nuh. The still-flourishing Delhi chapter of the AAA does exactly that. The association’s current general secretary — a seriously weighty designation for an amateur group — Raghu Kalra, told me that public observations are still organised on every third Saturday of the month at the Planetarium. “But for serious observations, we go outside Delhi, to places like Sariska,” he said. 
Kalra has been a member of the AAA since 2002, owns a couple of telescopes himself, and, as and when the night sky permits, he chooses to dabble in astrophotography. “The best sky I have ever seen was over Ladakh, when I went to the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle,” he said. But how about Delhi, I asked him, awaiting the expected response. “There is no point doing an observation in Delhi,” he said. “The sky here is extremely bad.” 
Actually, light isn’t the only thing that’s messing up Delhi’s night sky. Kalra told me that there are other, bigger and more dazzling cities around the world (“Like in Australia,” he said) where light pollution is high but where the night sky still retains its basic character. But Delhi has an exacerbating factor: air pollution. “Air pollution,” Kalra said, “is a major contributor. Because of it, a lot of light gets reflected to the sky making it worse and worse every year.”
Going stargazing in Delhi is therefore a dead end. Don’t bother, would be my advice to prospective amateurs and telescope buyers. Defeated in my astronomical pursuits, I told my cousin that it was time to pack up and go home. We were standing at the edge of a parking lot, where we had planned to set up the Dobsonian mount (whatever that means) of the telescope. “Dinner?” I asked. But wait... here before us was the gibbous moon. 
It had risen above the 20-degree mark of the skyline and was now hanging, faded as an off-white smudge, right behind a cellphone tower. “We should look at the moon at least,” Atish said to me, and he then set about aligning the telescope in the right direction and adjusting its eyepiece. Shelley had written: “The moon arose up in the murky east/ A white and shapeless mass.” The moon before us wasn’t as white but it seemed shapeless alright, enveloped in all that haze. No. We were covered in haze, not the moon. 
By the time the telescope was ready, a small crowd had gathered around us. We had piqued the curiosity of a few passers-by, who, too, wanted to look through the eye-piece at worlds different from ours. Through the telescope, magnified over 60 times, the moon appeared shapely and (as a Victorian poet would have called it) majestic. It shone with a uniform golden light — light that came from the sun — and it finally added to the night sky light that made some sense.

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