It was a sweltering summer evening. I was on vacation at my mother’s hometown – a small place in Kerala. The town offered a completely different weather from Bengaluru, where I lived. Evenings in this town are hot and usually quite humid. But not this day, as is the case with some lucky days in the middle of summer. There was no chance of rain, and the sky was cloudless. So, we went to the terrace to look at the stars. I was probably 10 at that time, and had already learned to identify planets and many constellations in the night sky. But this night felt completely different. The low light pollution allowed us to see extremely faint stars that would normally be invisible to the naked eye in a city. As we marvelled at the sight in front of us, I told my father “I have never seen so many stars. The sky is so dark. And except for that one patch of clouds, it is so clear.” He followed my gaze to the clouds I had mentioned. When he noticed what I was talking about, he said, “Those aren’t clouds. That’s the Milky Way.”
I don’t remember many details of that day – I don’t remember the year, the month, the colour of the parapet, or even if anyone else was with us on that terrace. But, what I distinctly recollect is the feeling that hit me at that moment. I was not looking at water condensed in the atmosphere – I was looking at possibly a billion stars in that small patch of sky. It was a sense of discovery, riding on the overwhelming realisation of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. It is this
feeling that is at the core of astrotourism. It is something that you’d want to experience again and again.
Interest in astronomy peaked early for me. I was able to identify constellations and planets at a very young age, and enjoyed reading stories about exploration of the skies from Aristotle to the Space Age. Like any hobby, starting early ensures enough time for it to grow into a passion. Even as far as 25 years ago, there were a fair number of avenues to foster this hobby. We just had to look harder. Most big towns had government-run planetariums and science museums, and I was a frequent visitor to the ones in Bengaluru. Various amateur groups and educational setups occasionally conducted events related to astronomy that we religiously participated in. And while clear, dark skies were elusive in the city, we could still spend time looking at the phases of the moon, and identifying planets and some of the brightest stars.
Of course, it is much easier now. You don’t need to hunt for books in the local or school library. You have the internet, especially YouTube, with its hours of high-quality content. Astronomy clubs and events are more in number today, and marketed much better than before, making them easier to be found. Of course, the field is extremely nascent, and therefore quite disorganised. You still need to put in considerable effort to identify the right avenues, especially when compared to opportunities for other hobbies such as running or music.
Particularly effective drivers of stargazing as a hobby are the space agencies themselves. I remember taking part in an event organised in 2001 by The Planetary Society, in partnership with NASA, called Red Rover Goes To Mars. It aimed to create awareness and excitement among school kids about the two Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that were about to be launched. Such outreach programs are extremely effective, and while ISRO still has a long way to go, they’ve definitely made many moves in the right direction.
Kids today have a problem of plenty, when it comes to opportunities to get into astronomy as a hobby. Access to the internet has removed geographic borders – one can take part in an event organised in the USA, become a member of a club set up in France or join a forum of amateur stargazers in Australia. There are many Indian companies that are working to cultivate an interest in astronomy among children.
There’s enough for the rest of us too. A flurry of resorts and holiday destinations are working on including new experiences for their guests – and a night of stargazing seems like just the thing to fit in. Tours and travel organisers are plugging in astrotours to dark-sky locations.
An important stakeholder in establishing astrotourism is the government. Unfortunately, their involvement till date has been quite lacklustre. While there is a lot of focus on space research and exploration, little attention has been paid to building interest among the masses. There have been some encouraging instances though, and that bodes well for the future. Rajasthan’s Department of Art and Culture is organising stargazing sessions, and the Madhya Pradesh government is planning to set up an astro-park in Mandu. The Uttarakhand government has, by far, taken the most concrete step, by starting a project to make the Chamoli district as a location for astrotourism. The specific area demarcated for this, Benital, is a fantastic dark-sky site that can be developed into an accredited International Dark Sky Place, which can receive global recognition as a site for astrotourists. Starscapes is involved in the project to develop Benital, and has already conducted an event at this location.
Like any other hobby, stargazing too can help you unwind, cut yourself off from the rush of daily life, and recharge your batteries before returning to the world of slow-moving traffic and PowerPoint presentations. In addition, it provides a strong connect to nature, and has the potential to influence you on a metaphysical plane. An escape from the routine is relevant now more than ever before, with the shadow of the pandemic repeatedly falling on us. I would know – I’m currently in isolation as I recover from a bout of COVID-19. But it is not long before I am able to go out and revel once more in the glory of the night sky. And I would urge you to do the same. Step out of your home, and join me and other stargazers, as we look up at the sky!