Though credited with finding the Vikram lander’s debris on the moon, Shanmuga Subramanian is far from the only person from the city gazing into the night sky with starry eyes.
Gaze at galaxies: Along with his friends, Siva Subramaniam remembers staying up all night to watch the stars. Armed with telescopes and binoculars, the gaggle of friends would note and call out the constellations in the sky.
“It’s the mystery of space. We don’t know that we are in space, and so when we see the expanse for the first time, it strikes you how beautiful everything is – the planets, the moons, and the stars,” said 31-year-old Neeraj Ladia, a Chennai-based astrophotographer who has captured images of Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and more over his seven-year stint.
For Prashanthi B, the infatuation began here at the Birla Planetarium. “I used to go there often when I was in Class two to see Saturn. We even did a science project for the Chandrayaan-1 launch when I was in school. We were fascinated because it was on the news everywhere,” said the 21-year-old.
The moon and back: The Chandrayaan-2 launch was an event that sent ripples of excitement through the community. At VIT college, Vellore, Aditya Bhartia and his friends were hooked onto all forms of communication following the momentous event.
“We had actually planned a trip to Sriharikota to see the launch, but the launch was postponed. We couldn’t go the next time because we had exams then,” said the 21-year-old.
Prashanthi remembers staying awake all night watching the news, and feeling disappointed when the landing failed. “It came as a shock to all of us. It was going well until the end. I had to go to work the next day, but I stayed up all night anyway,” she said.
Learn and share: Wanting to share the experience of watching a twinkling sky, Subramaniam started the Chennai Astronomy Club in 2013, which hosts bimonthly stargazing events. Similarly, Bharthia is the chair of the VIT chapter of Students for Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), which also has a chapter in Chennai.
“SEDS hosts a lot of awareness programmes and discuss latest developments in technology. We interact with college students and school students to spread awareness. As this is a student-run organisation, we take care of everything ourselves because we are passionate about it,” he said. Ladia’s entry into astrophotography was a result of his teaching stint with SPACE India.
He would visit government and private schools and spreading knowledge on astronomy and space sciences. “Astrophotography does help me teach, because students can appreciate space better and understand how the world and universe works,” said the team head of SPACE India, Chennai.
Mobile viewing: “The weather in Chennai isn’t very conducive for stargazing. There’s a lot of light pollution. So, my friends and I usually have to travel to Kavalur to stargaze. I use apps to stargaze when we can’t travel,” said Subramanian.
Apps such as Stellarium allow enthusiasts to track stars, constellations and even nebulae no matter the weather, time, or location.
The enthusiasts also shared that they use the NASA app to stay up-to-date on all the latest information on technology, launches, and programmes.
Sharing the spectacle of space
Sitting on top the roof of his hoause in Tiruchy, Prabhakaran A remembers watching the stars in a clear sky until he fell asleep. The 28-year-old’s childhood love for space has led to him pursuing observational astronomy and astrophotography as his career today.
On July 14, 2018, one of his photographs of the moon was tweeted by the official handle of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) before the launch of Chandrayaan 2. “I felt happy and proud that the ISRO had recognised my work.
I actually got into astrophotography because of my passion for observational astronomy,” said the Engineering graduate from MIET Engineering College, Tiruchy. Initially, Prabhakaran would simply observe the sky with the naked eye. But buying a 130mm telescope helped him spot more obscure celestial bodies like nebulae and galaxies.
At the end of 2014, he got a job at the Delhi-based SPACE India, which aimed to spread awareness on astronomy to children. Prabhakaran would go to schools, orphanages and homes for underprivileged children in Chennai to share his fascination with the sky with them.
“I didn’t consider it to be my job. It was a 24-hour passion for me. I wanted people to share my love for astronomy with me, so I decided to buy basic photography equipment to show them some pictures,” he said.
With his 406mm telescope, he has taken pictures of all the planets in the solar system except Pluto. He has recorded the various phases of Mars from the Earth, and regularly uploads pictures on social media. Currently employed in Sharjah, UAE, as an educational coordinator for astronomy, archaeology and palaeontology, Prabhakaran also runs a YouTube channel that aims to spread awareness on astronomy among the public.
Space, for Prabhakaran, is a humbling concept. “As Carl Sagan said based on a photograph taken by the Voyager 1 in the 1990s, we are small and insignificant. There are millions of stars in the sky, and we are but a small part of all the galaxies and clusters,” he said. “Earth is the only inhabitable planet in the solar system, and yet we fight each other and other nations. We must be here for something other than that,” he said.
Keep exploring, says Techie who found Vikram debris
After finding the debris of the Vikram lander recently, Shanmuga Subramanian has seen a whirlwind of media attention and social media praise. The 33-year-old Chennai resident shares the aftermath of the events with DT Next.
Although not commenting on a question regarding his thoughts on the ISRO’s response to his findings, Shanmuga shares that he is encouraged by the positive comments from the public.
“I have seen and read a lot of comments and people are happy about my find. I believe this would inspire a lot of people not only from India but also other countries to look at space as a career,” said the IT architect working at Lennox India Technology Centre.
When asked if he is interested in careers at space organisations, Shanmuga responded that he is not interested right now and doesn’t possess the right qualifications.
Some space enthusiasts have contacted him seeking his advice following the events, said Subramanian. His message to them is simple: “Keep exploring more and more.”
Just look ‘app’
Here are four stargazing apps that will allow you to view the stars no matter your location or the conditions. From nebulae to constellations, these apps will help you track and identify them all. Happy stargazing!
Stellarium Mobile Sky Map
Available on: Android, iOS
Price: Rs 230
This app shows an interactable sky map, with details on constellations, nebulas, star clusters, and galaxies. The map can be zoomed and also registers artificial satellites and the International Space Station
Available on: Android, iOS
This lets you track constellations with AR technology. More than 8,000 stars and 88 constellations visible to the naked eye are registered on the app. Zodiac constellations and famous deep sky objects have also been registered in the app
Available on: Android
This mobile planetarium app allows you to track certain planets, stars, nebulae and constellations using AR, with each celestial body’s name shown next to it. The app also allows you to key in a past date and time to see the stars at that time
Available on: Android, iOS
This stargazing app allows you to track certain celestial bodies using your phone camera. This app does not require mobile data of GPS to use, and boasts a feature to share constellations on social media