“We’ll now take questions on Interstellar,” someone said. It’s 1a.m. and I’m in the middle of a farm in Neral (a town about 63km away from Mumbai), struggling to stay awake. Next to me, a kid whispers to his dad about that time they spotted a shooting star when they were on holiday. Above us, the night sky forms a canopy of darkness, punctured by pinpricks of light from stars, galaxies and planets. A fitting setting for a discussion on the intricacies of space travel, wouldn’t you say?
Within minutes, Christopher Nolan’s latest film is ripped apart with everything from black holes to the fifth dimension to the meaning of singularity called into question. Swapnil Jawkar, the discussion leader, has his hands full. He’s a member of Khagol Mandal, a 30-year old organization dedicated to bringing the wonders of the night sky to the public. And this Interstellar take-down was part of a nightlong session of stargazing.
Full disclosure, I am a space geek. I have an almost Pavlovian reaction to anything cosmological. When I look up at the sky, I feel wonderment—that the flickering stars might actually be dead, but they’re so far away from the Earth that their light is just reaching us after traversing the universe; that Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon will probably stay the same for another 100 million years; and that (spoiler alert) every atom on this planet, including the ones within us, came from stars.
The enormousness of what’s going on up there baffles me, in a way I can’t get enough of. My obsessions started with NASA’s iconic Pale Blue Dot image, that put everything into perspective. I realised how small we were and how gargantuan the universe is. It’s a growing, impossibly vast, action-packed cosmic soup of everything we’ve ever known and a whole lot more we never will know. And although that thought humbled me a bit, it also got my curiosity going. I wanted to know what was out there.
This is NASA’s iconic Pale Blue Dot taken by the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990. That dot of white in the orange streak on the right is Earth, from about 6 billion kilometres away. Photo: NASA
As we settled in with our winter paraphernalia (gloves, monkey caps et al) for a long, cold night, a voice introduced itself as Pradeep Nayak. He was the president of Khagol Mandal and our first stellar guide for the night. Using his incredibly cool, straight-out-of-Star Wars laser pointer, Nayak unravelled the secrets of the night sky. He traced many constellations: the Great Square of Pegasus; the M-shaped Cassiopeia; the zodiac signs of Aquarius, Pisces and Taurus; the swan-like Cygnus.
There was more. Pointing to a patch of dark sky that fell within the Cygnus constellation, Nayak said, “There’s a 99 per cent chance that there is a black hole there.” Turns out massive amounts of X-rays are radiating from that patch—a telltale sign of a black hole. I read up on this potential black hole, called Cygnus X-1, and learnt that its event horizon (at present, the point of no return, unless you’re Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar) is spinning at 800 times a second. Which means it spun 9,600 times in the time it took me to write this sentence. Say it with me—Nine Thousand Six Hundred rotations in 12 little seconds. Chew on that for a bit.
Soon, we were lining up in front of the telescopes, training our eyes on more cosmic wonders. We spied the star cluster of the Pleiades. It’s easy to spot; just look for seven bright bodies that form a celestial cat’s cradle. We also saw Andromeda, not the TV show, but the galaxy. A whole other galaxy. It’s the farthest cosmic body visible to the naked eye and I couldn’t wait to see it.
Before I bent down to look through the eyepiece, I tried to prepare myself for the impending bewilderment. Every time I’ve looked at something in space, whether it was Saturn and its gorgeous rings or a star nursery a million light years away, I feel a mini-explosion of awe in my brain. Like a little “poof”! And this time was no different. It took a little shuffling around before I could finally focus on Andromeda. From 2.5 billion light years away, it winked at me, blurred behind a film of cosmic dust.
Damn. I was looking at another galaxy.
Surrounded by people ooh’ing and ah’ing over the universe, I wondered why we were all so taken by what’s up there. And then it hit me. Stargazing is just another form of travel. No matter where we are—glued to a telescope on our terrace or on a journey around the world— we go through the same motions. We could be looking at Saturn or the Sistine Chapel; we still experience that sense of adventure, of wonder, of discovering something new.
Whether it was a shift in my perspective, or a spike in my curiosity to know more about the world, I know something within me had changed. And whatever it may have been, there was no going back.
As I recovered from Andromeda’s awesomeness, I recalled something Nayak said earlier, when talking about the urge to learn about the unknown: “I don’t know why we’re curious.” I don’t know why either, but I love the feeling and I’m going to keep looking up.
The next Khagol Mandal sky observation event is from Sat Dec 24, 7p.m.-Sun Dec 25, 5a.m. in Neral, Mumbai. More details and booking here.
Orientation: Khagol Mandal is based in Sion, Mumbai. They conduct stargazing sessions in Marathi and English at least once a month, through the year. Marathi sessions are held in Vangani, and English session in Neral. They also have weekly meetings at their office and can be contacted via their website. To attend one of their frequent public programs, follow their Facebook page.
Getting There Check with the organisation for directions. Transport is occasionally available from the nearest railway station.
Explore If you feel hungry en route, stop by the restaurant in Dr. Modi’s Resort in Wanjale village in Karjat. The establishment also offers accommodation and wellness therapies. Call 09049773333 or 09890971280.
The package A night of stargazing includes sessions on how to identify certain stars, telescopic viewings and a Q&A slot. Khagol Mandal charges ₹400 for their stargazing sessions, which includes tea. Kids below 8 can enter free; students between 8-16 years of age, ₹350. Dinner is an additional ₹200. The session ends at 5a.m.
Good to know: Nights can get really cold, so dress warm. Carry a torch, drinking water, and snacks.
is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She's partial to places by the sea and desserts in all forms. When she isn't raving about food, she's usually rambling on about the latest cosmic mysteries. She tweets as @kamakshi138.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.