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Observing with Khagol Mandal, Neral, India, February 2017

We've been in Mumbai for about 18 months. One of the reasons we ended up here is that India has an active astronomy scene, from spacecraft run by Isro (the Indian Space Research Organization), to the highest permanent telescope in the world (the 2.1-meter Himalayan Chandra Telescope at 14,500'), to involvement with huge international projects such as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) and TMT (30 Meter Telescope).

But in scoping out the astronomy scene before we got here, I came across the web page of an amateur astronomy group, Khagol Mandal ('Cosmos Club', in the local Marathi). Their Indian form of 'star party' looked incredible, down to the very detailed instructions of which trains to take, and a minute-by-minute observation plan including midnight dinner and 3 AM tea break. Up until now, I hadn't crossed paths with them. But as luck had it, they invited me to give a talk, and one of my colleagues was taking her Astrobiology class there for the night, so I headed out to their dark-sky site about two hours outside of Mumbai for their all-night star party.

The program for the night included two night-sky tours, a few seminars, and many hours of dark-sky observing. The club schedules these about 8 times a year -- monthly except for monsoon season. The main purpose of these events is educational outreach -- showing the skies to Mumbaikers who wouldn't get a chance to otherwise. There are members of the public, some club members and enthusiasts, and a lot of students.


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I headed out to the observing site at Neral. This is a small town about 80 km from Mumbai. The Mumbai suburban train network is huge, and every 30 minutes there's a train there from the main CST station in south Bombay.

I'd been in the area of Neral before -- it's the same station you would take to go to Matheran, a hill station we spent a weekend at last year. Matheran has no cars or rickshaws -- just horses and push-carts. But they do have a new public observatory with a 14" telescope! The guy who built it was at Khagol Mandal, and told me all about it. "The hardest thing with building the dome was that we had to construct all the parts so they could be individually carried up the mountain."

On the train...
The Mumbai trains serve 7.5 million people a day (and the whole metro area is just 18 million, so you can do the math). There were about 300 people in our train car. Second class, 25 rupees ($0.40) for the two-hour ride out.

The train started at about 50% capacity at the station, and I figured it would get less and less by the end (which is pretty rural). But no! The stations far out are served infrequently, so the trains actually get more and more crowded the further you go. We are definitely in the rural-ish countryside by now, about 60 km from Bombay proper.

And we're met at the station by guides from Khagol Mandal, where we get on buses for the short ride to the site.
Schedule for the night! This group puts on far more than a standard amateur astronomy star party. It's a full structured 10-hour program, with tea breaks! They've been doing this for 30 years, and really know what they're doing.
A few of the club members are setting up. That's a 10" Dobsonian to the right. They also had a 10" SCT, and a bunch of large Newtonians.
Dilip Joshi is one of the founding members of Khagol Mandal from 1985. When not observing, he's a journalist.
Kiran Ambardekar -- one of the club's senior members -- along with junior member Chitra Deshpande.
Chitra was quite excited to see Spica tonight. "It's my name star -- Spica is Chitra in Marathi and Hindi -- and I've never seen it!"
Chandan Bhadsavle owns the field that we used for the night... and of course comes out to see the sky. He runs a rural guest house on the site during the day.
There were about 150 attendees this month. Many of them were students from Mumbai-area colleges. She is getting started on the masala chai.
More students!
Checking in at registration. 10 hours of astronomy will cost you 400 rupees ($8). Add a bit more if you want a tasty dinner too!
And it's Venus!
An unintentional selfie! The group is assembling at the center as the sun is going down. That's Venus above the trees on the left.
That laser beam points back to Pradeep Nakak, who is giving a tour of the night sky. He was fantastic -- a super knowledge of the sky, constellations, clusters, and so forth. He's written a well-known book on amateur astronomy in Marathi (Taraangan).

Venus is now in the trees, but you can see Mars as the bright object on the left above the tree. Uranus is right next to Mars (not visible here probably, but I did see it!).

As the night sky tour finishes up, the telescopes are getting ready. That's mine to the left. It was driven over for me from Mumbai so I didn't have to bring it on the train. But it's only slightly larger than things people do bring on the trains (diesel generators, tons of iced raw fish, barrels of limes, fresh lobsters, etc.)
I hooked up my DSLR to my 8" SCT and took a few pics. 190 seconds on the Orion nebula looks like this! Nothing else in the sky is nearly as big and bright. The Trapezium cluster is the four bright stars packed in right at the center. They're almost overlapping here, but in the eyepiece, they are really distinct.

I spent much of the evening showing people Orion and other things in my telescope, but did get to move around and see the other groups as well. Most of them knew far more about the sky than I did, and could point a Dobsonian (no motors, no computer) a lot faster than I could navigate through my menu system.

Some of the highlights from the night:

  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Uranus
  • Andromeda (M31)
  • Orion (M42)
  • Horsehead Nebula (M43)? Really faint.
  • Crab nebula (M1) - also very faint.
  • M81/M82 (galaxies).
  • A few clusters.
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • Pleiades
  • Jewel Box
  • Sombrero galaxy (M104)
  • After a couple hours of observing, it's time for a midnight dinner! Dal, rice, roti, some sweet noodles, some green veg paneer, halwa, carrots, raw onions, chutney, and more.
    How many places in the world can you get a great thali platter served while observing? I don't know, but it's never happened to me before.
    Biologist Sujeta Deshpande teaches the Astrobiology course at St. Xavier's College in Mumbai. She brought all of her 20+ students out. (Sadly I could not bring my class since many of them had an exam the next day -- 9 AM Sunday morning.)
    Hey! It's midnight and we're sitting outside in the surprisingly cold Mumbai February night... let's set up a projector and watch some Power Point slides! So that's what we did. There was a great talk on a DIY radio telescope, and then I gave a talk on my involvement with NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.
    By 2:30 AM it's back to observing! Sombrero galaxy (M104, Virgo, v=9). This was easy to find in the eyepice -- I'd never seen it before.
    Jupiter and its moons are always awesome. Io is behind Jupiter and not seen; Ganymede is the one to the left. I stretched things pretty hard here to make the satellites and the bands both visible, so you definitely see some artifacts here.

    Saturn became visible around 4 AM. No pics of it, since they never compare to the real thing.

    And by 5 AM everyone was packed up, the site was clean, and the buses were headed back to the train station.

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    Henry Throop

    Last modified Tue Mar 7 07:57:25 2017