Night has fallen and the sky has cleared. Located above the celestial equator you can see Orion, with his belt and sword, together with a smattering of other stars and constellations. But the night sky is far from black, an orange glow coats the horizons, and the metropolis haze makes for bad viewing. Little is visible to the naked eye.
The reason, says astronomer Dr. Parag Mahajani, is there is too much light and gas pollution. “You have to go 20km or 30km out of the city. You should also try to be as high as possible, on a mountain top is always better, because the lower the area, the higher the density of air.”
Dr. Parag took up astronomy as teenager after a failed visit to observe Halley’s Comet. Orbiting close to the earth every 76 years, the comet has a place in history. Deemed as a bad omen by King Harold II, it was spied in 1066, the year the Normans conquered England. It is even featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, an artwork that tells the story of the conquest. Some think it may also be the Star of Bethlehem — the comet made an appearance in 12BCE. Observing the comet is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“My dad took me to the Naval planetarium in Mumbai in 1986 to watch the comet,” he recalls. “It was around 11 at night and I still remember the queue — there were about 1,000 people. I was very depressed and I said to my dad I didn’t think we were going to see it. He said we should wait. But by the time we got to the planetarium the comet had disappeared from view. That was the point I decided to have my own telescope.”
Giving his first speech on astronomy at the age of 20, in 2005 the wireless engineer and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in London took up the profession full time. He is now a lecturer, an award-winning author and a die-hard stargazer. He is also the architect behind what will shortly be the first privately owned observatory in Vietnam.
Located in Six Senses Resort on Con Dao, the observatory will be completed later this year. In August Dr. Parag will be making a return trip to Vietnam.
“There are two types of observatory,” he explains. “One can be used to do parameter research. For that kind of observatory we need specialised equipment like photometers, spectroscopes, instruments that are highly sensitive because we are looking deep in space. Such an observatory must be on the top of the mountain because you cannot afford to lose a single bit of information.
“The objective of the second type of observatory is for education and entertainment. This is what I am building on Con Dao.”
Thanks to its dark sky, national park location and lack of both gas and light pollution, the Con Dao archipelago is a “unique place” for observing the stars. Lying close to the equator, its latitude also makes it an unparalleled point from which to observe constellations like The Southern Cross (The Crux), St. Thomas and Sagitarrius.
“There is a good combination of northern and southern constellations,” he explains. “For instance we can see the Pole Star the way we can see it from London, except the Pole Star is very close to horizon in Vietnam because the latitude of Vietnam is quite low, lower than the latitude of London. This gives us a different perspective on the sky as you can see the constellation in a different geometrical orientation and that is very interesting.”
As with most private observatories, the purpose of the construction in Con Dao is to share the “joy and experience of the universe”. It’s not just for adults, but for children of all ages.
“Most of us won’t get the opportunity to get into astronomy,” says the astronomer. “We are in other jobs, the instruments are expensive, we don’t have any specialised knowledge. So this will be an excellent place for the guest of Six Senses Con Dao to visit the observatory every night and experience the heavens.”
Dr. Parag may not ever see Halley’s Comet — its next appearance will be in July 2061. But from being stuck in a queue of thousands and having a desire to own a telescope, he has gone from a young boy in Mumbai to an adult building observatories and planetariums so that everyday people can experience the stars.