Whenever you are bored and have got ample spare time, what do you do? Read books? Watch TV? Go out with friends to movies or fast food? Well, Astronomers, on first priority make out to a dark sky location in countryside, so we can observe thousands of stars and feel the grandeur of the Universe.
One such program was set up very recently by the Karachi Astronomers Society and PakWheels. We planned to have an all night astronomy session at a small village in Sindh, Pakistan.
Mr. Hanif Bhatti, who happens to be the founder of PakWheels arranged all the matters of stay and eating, and the date was decided to be 1-2 March 2014.
I don’t remember the names of all since there were so many new people, whom I was meeting for the first time. As soon as I arrived at the rendezvous point to leave for the trip, I saw a man dressed up in white. It immediately clicked to me that it must be Umair Rasheed. Well I was right and I had a brief chit-chat with him until others also arrived. Umair Rasheed is a religious scholar and his institution is pioneering in predictions of new moon visibility. I also met a new member named Waqar. Gujarati chit-chat between Umair and Waqar amused me.
Soon I saw Absar Taqvi, Abbas Jafri, Imran Rasheed, Sajjad Ahmed, Muhammad Mehdi Hussain (President), Abubaker Siddiq (General Secretary), Zain Ahmed, Jahanzeb Panjwani, Ramiz Qureshi, and other guys. I introduced myself to Jahanzeb as Astronomer Bilal, and Jahanzeb asked if Astronomer is literally my first name. WOW I didn’t know it had become integrated part of my name.
As we were chatting in the scorching sunlight waiting for others to arrive, a black sedan stopped nearby and a Police guard got off the vehicle. He opened the back door, and an elderly man came out of the car and introduced himself as Zafar Ahmad Farooqi, Former Inspector General of Sindh Police.
Someone joked that if he goes with us, we will have free “Security Protocol”. Former happened, latter didn’t.
His style of asking “Your name please and what do you do” was like that of a true cop. Really impressive. Although he is 60+, but his passion for Astronomy at this age was amazing. He was the most senior astronomer in our group this time.
Wheels Rolling, Moving Finally.
I and Absar decided to sit together. Our coaster also picked Sarang Shaikh (MUET/KHI IEEE Waala), Nofal Khan, and Danish Mughal. During the journey, I and Absar discussed on awful lot many topics which ranged from Poetry to Science and Theology.
Arrived at the village around 2 PM and had lunch. Very sumptuous lunch at local hotel. At the lunch table, Sarang and I told stories of how political the environment is in the universities of Jamshoro, to Nofal and Danish. There was discussion on demographics of Hyderabad as well.
Left the hotel and this time we were moving towards our camp site. The road was too much dusty and those wearing black clothes now had their clothes patterned white.
Soon, the road turned into a narrow path which is called “Pag-Dandi” (Foot Strip) in local language. We started seeing the hut. I was really pleased to see the lush green fields of various crops including yellow-green field of mustard and sunflowers. Got off from the coasters and put our bags inside the hut.
It was now time for introduction. On our every all night astronomy session, we assemble in a large circle and introduce ourselves to each other. This helps us to know about each other’s background and their interest that brings them to such far-off places.
By the time we were done with the introduction, I felt excessive need of caffeine boost up. Kept feeling it for 5 more hours.
Went out with Ramiz, Jahanzeb, and other guys to roam around in the fields and appreciate the nature. The walk from hut to the fields was long, and I was darn tired but I kept walking till we reached the end of the long Pag-Dandi. From there, we took a U-Turn and travelled another adjacent path of the same length just to check a small oasis type place at the other end. Took some shots here.
Now since there was no short cut from that second path to the hut, we again had to travel all the way back, and then take the first path, and then the same distance to the hut. This completely enervated me and I decided to take a short nap so that I could remain up for the night, but there were so many flies that I couldn’t sleep even for a second. So I said “Ah man, alright let’s not try sleeping any more”, and went outside to see what was happening.
Call for Asr prayers was given, offered prayers and the telescope setup was started. At the water pump, I met two guys from Hyderabad, who happened to be friends of my another friend, whom I knew from Twitter through another friend, and that another friend was introduced to me by Ramiz 😀
The Sun was setting, and I and Ramiz along with other friends once again went out in the fields, took the same infinitely long path, just to capture few shots of the setting Sun. Shots taken were really worth the Round Trip.
Oh I forgot to mention, that there was a little trench filled with water between the hut and the telescopes. So we had two options, either to cross the bridge of death every time, or to take a relatively longer path, circling the venue and ending up at the telescopes from other side.
Chose to took the bridge of death for countless times because it was fun and scary. It was a wooden ladder serving as the bridge which scared me for the first time, but crossing it two or three times gave me a great experience, which of course cannot be mentioned on the resume.
The cloak of darkness wrapped everything as the Sun went down, and we all gathered by the telescopes. Initially there were appetizer type discussions on science, including the famous movie Gravity (2013). We discussed the science behind the movie and the degree of its accuracy.
Then there were some serious discussions. Some new guys asked me questions on various scientific phenomena such as relativity, Newtonian and Einsteinian Physics, Stephen Hawking, whom I mistakenly uttered as Richard Dawkins (Freudian Slip?) and the night sky. Answered them in detail.
After the darkness, when I raised my head for the first time at the sky, I was literally stunned and my mind whirled for a moment or two. There were so many stars, too much of them, that I couldn’t focus my eyes at any point in the sky. My head twiddled. I took a few minutes to recover from this and started enjoying the night sky.
Had long, very long discussion on theory of evolution with Mehdi Bhai, Sajjad Bhai, Absar, and other guys. The discussion continued in many sessions with small pauses and finally we reached a common conclusion on it.
At around 9 PM, dinner was served. Tight Masaley Wali Biryani which is called “Bhatt” in Sindhi with (Finally) a strong tea with milk, which is called “Kadak Doodh Patti” in local lingo. Now I was all set for spending the night without rest.
By the time we finished dinner and tea, Mars and Arcturus had risen from East, and the two reddish heavenly bodies with nearby blue coloured star Spica was a pleasing sight.
Ramiz, Abubaker, and other photography enthusiasts went away in the fields with their toys to capture some shots of stars. They returned hours later with a treasure of starry visuals in their electronic gadgets.
Meanwhile, I was surrounded with other guys, who were enthusiastic about knowing the night sky, and I was more enthusiastic to tell them about it. In any Astronomy event, and also generally in Astronomy, I like the theory and discussions part more than the observing part. It gives me an immense pleasure to know and to understand the phenomena that make the Universe as it really is.
After observing a few galaxies through 6 inch Dobsonian telescope, I lied down on my back, opened up an Astronomy app in my mobile phone and started tracing constellations. Constellations are patterns of stars in the night sky, which are apparent only when viewed from the Earth in 2-dimensional plane. As the world is divided into countries, the night sky is divided into constellations, and this helps astronomers refer to specific parts in the night sky. There are 88 constellations in the night sky.
I was lucky enough to trace complete constellations of Gemini (Twins), Canis Major (Big Dog), Hydra (The Sea Serpent), Crater (Cup), and Corvus (Crow), Leo (Lion), Ursa Major (The Big Bear), Bootes (The Herdsman), and Scorpius (The Scorpion). I also taught these constellations to other guys nearby.
As I was lying on the floor, I noticed that near constellation Coma Berenices (Hair of Berenices II) there were small fuzzy dots, closely packed with each other. To this day, I had thought that the only galaxy visible from naked eye is Messier 31 the Andromeda Galaxy, therefore I didn’t give a thought to what could be those dots. Only a few minutes later, Zain Bhai told me that those dots were galaxies in the Coma Cluster of Galaxies.
Oh my God !!! Such dark sky that I could see galaxies millions and millions of light years away with my naked eyes. That is one unforgettable moment and a joy which cannot be expressed in words.
The Coma Cluster (Abell 1656) is a large cluster of galaxies that contains over 1,000 identified galaxies. Along with the Leo Cluster (Abell 1367), it is one of the two major clusters comprising the Coma Supercluster. It is located in and takes its name from the constellation Coma Berenices. The cluster’s mean distance from Earth is 99 Mega Parsecs (321 million light years). This means that light, being the fastest thing in Universe takes 321 Million Years to reach from Coma Cluster to the Earth.
At around 3 AM, almost everyone went inside the hut to sleep but few people. The telescopes were covered because they had been invaded by dew and the sky had become hazy, rendering us unable to observe anything clearly. This condition forced many astronomers to sleep, but I kept awake and kept roaming here and there.
As the dawn approached, I, Abubaker, Sajjad Bhai, Nofal Khan, and Jahanzeb made it to the fields far away from the hut to get ourselves pictured with the majestic arm of our home galaxy, Milky Way, which had just risen from East, in the constellation of Sagittarius. From a dark location, and sometimes even from light polluted metropolitan skies, you can recognize a cloudy patch, similar to the path between the fields, or Pag-Dandi, runs from constellation Sagittarius to Cygnus and to Orion, even if the sky is crystal clear, this patch will be visible in these constellations. This is the arm of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.
Milky Way has got several arms (like an Octopus) which are visible towards the direction of different constellations. Our Sun is located in one such arm. The arms are made up of galactic dust and the stars, and our Sun is one of those.
I saw a grand, majestic, extremely beautiful collection of stars in South. Although I was unaware of the pattern of the stars, I could make out that the bright stars would be members of a certain constellation. Someone told me that this was the constellation Centaurus (Centaur). Since then, this constellation has become one of my favourites. Constellation Centaurus is a southern constellation, that is visible only in southern latitudes, and is difficult to observe in the metropolitan areas due to high-rise buildings.
Got many a shots with and of Milky Way galaxy. Soon Ramiz joined us in the fields, and he managed to capture some amazing shots.
Meanwhile, the planet Venus had risen to a considerable altitude. The sky was so dark, that for the first time ever, I could feel the light of planet Venus illuminating the venue and our faces. When the haze settled a bit, this illumination increased even more. When you are under such dark skies, you can see each others’ faces even only in starlight. Isn’t that amazing? 🙂
Back to telescopes. Now we hurried to observe some last objects as the dawn was really close. Saw planet Saturn, planet Venus (half-phase), Messier 57 the Ring Nebula in constellation Lyra (The Harp), and double star Albireo in constellation Cygnus (The Swan). By this time, the light of morning was visible on the horizon.
The faint light which spreads horizontally in the sky around an hour and half before the sunrise, is called Al-Fajr Al-Sadiq (True Dawn) in Arabic and Subh e Sadiq in Urdu. When it is True Dawn, a creamy milky light is visible in the direction of East and is spread out to several degree from East to North and from East to South, horizontally. As soon as the True Dawn starts, its the time for Morning prayers, and when the Muslims fast in the month of Ramadan or any other time, the True Dawn marks the start of their fast and eating beyond this time voids the fast.
This was my first time to have witnessed Al-Fajr Al-Sadiq and I was really excited for this.
As the Sun rose up, we took some final shots of ourselves with the telescopes, and lined up for the breakfast. A very delicious breakfast was arranged and I ate till my brain gave me a stop signal.
Left the venue at around 9 AM. Took the same coaster and sat with Absar. But this time, there were no discussions because everyone of us was so tired of all day and all night’s exertion. I slept for some 10 minutes while coming back to the port city.
Arrived in Karachi at noon, and at 12:30 PM I was home. For this entire trip, I slept only for 10 minutes in 36 hours. My shoes proved to be rather uneasy, and I had deep marks of penetration on my feet due to them. But I was really happy to have made it to one of the most beautiful nights of my life, an experience which I will never forget. For even today while writing this post, the lovely sight of Constellation Centaur is flashing in front of my eyes 🙂