Sunday 12 February 2023

Experiencing India's First Dark Sky Reserve

It was 1:30 AM in the last week of September. Location: Hanle, a remote place in Ladakh.

It's an open area and pitch dark. It's very cold and the temperature reads -2°C. The wind is only making it worse. The 6 layers of clothing is not helping much! With eyes, nose and mouth exposed, the cold is taking a hit on the face.

But the face is tilted upwards, the eyes are scanning the night sky. This is supposed to be one of the darkest places in India and as is evident, the milky way arm is clearly visible to the naked eye. It has spanned from horizon to horizon. Unbelievable! I haven't seen this before! Our neighbor galaxy Andromeda is no more a difficult object to locate. It's there! You can't miss that!

Milky Way

By looking at so many stars, my mind is going through a flood of thoughts. Each of those stars are like our very own Sun. How many of those stars might have Earth-like planets?! Even if there are, those planets are nowhere in the picture! If someone from one of those planets looks at the sky, is there a guarantee that our Sun is visible?! What are the chances that the Earth is visible to them! What about the countries, powerful people, the celebrities, you and me, our favorite and expensive cars, our villas…The more I look at this vastness of cosmos, the less significant all these looks.
Zodiacal Light

It's beyond imagination to even put the things in perspective. If each individual star exposes the insignificance of our pride, what about that other galaxy which is visible to the naked eye. That one galaxy itself has millions or billions of stars! But for us, it looks like a single source of light!

Where is my pride, where is my position in the society, my job title, my achievements and trophies in my cupboard, the very thought that I'm an important person in the society! Oh man! The universe is laughing at you! Did you ever look at poor ants with sympathy or care? You are not even ants for the universe. Just a shake from the universe, we are gone in a fraction of time!

The mind was restless with so many thoughts, but the body was constantly protesting that it cannot take the cold anymore. Finally it gave up. I had to pack and head to the nearest guesthouse and lie down on the bed. The coziness of the bed calmed down the body, but the mind started thinking about how it all unfolded.

It was sometime in June, the topic of going to Hanle for an Astronomy event popped up in a closed group. The star party is a common and yearly event conducted by Bangalore Astronomical Society or BAS as it is popularly called. However these events are conducted in the southern part of India and the public is invited to take part and get hands-on with binoculars and telescopes. The event in Hanle was different for the fact that it is a remote place at much higher altitude and weather would not be friendly at all. So this event was limited to a very few people who are very serious in visual observation or Astrophotography.

As a visual observer, I know the importance of a "darker" sky. The darker the place is, the better the observation is. Hanle is already popular because the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) has set up one of the biggest telescopes in India. So for Astronomy people, Hanle is nothing short of a pilgrimage trip!

I was bursting with excitement about the Hanle trip. Luckily nothing was planned on the personal front. Once the dates were finalized, I applied for 9 days leave in the company. Getting the leaves was only a part of this trip. Little I knew that the preparation would take a hell of a time!

I was going to face harsh weather. A Bengalurian doesn't even understand the extremes of weather! Ah, isn't that the reason why people like the city! We do have summer and winter, but it never goes to extremes. At Hanle, the night temperature was expected to be below zero, so I had to shop for 6 layers of winter wear! It was not only about clothes. I packed sunscreen, lip balm, moisturizer cream and what not. I also packed ORS packets, thermo flask, a bunch of medicines and many more!

Upon reaching Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, it was mandatory to stay for a minimum of 2 nights. This was to ensure that our body gets acclimatized to the altitude. Then our journey started to Hanle. Let me share a few snaps of landscapes in this route.

Once we reached Hanle, I did check my SPO2 level in the oximeter. It read 84! If it were in Bengaluru, I would be in the hospital at the very moment. But hey! It's quite normal here at Hanle! There is less oxygen, so chill!

Any extra physical task, you would experience lack of oxygen. My heart was pounding and I could hear the sound. Again I checked in the oximeter, the pulse rate was 125! My mind again reminded me "Hey, It's quite normal, just chill".

Hanle will be declared as India's first dark sky reserve and astro-tourism will be promoted by the government. We from BAS, teamed up with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics to conduct the first star party in this location. We were 15 in numbers - some of us are Visual Observers (like me), and others Astrophotographers. Our aim is to observe celestial objects such as planets, galaxies, nebulae and clusters through our eyes. Our other fellows try to capture these objects in their cameras.
The BAS Team

It was not about how many objects we observe or capture. It was about experiencing the place, enduring the cold and wind, understanding the difficulties in a remote place, and yet immersing ourselves in the cosmos and getting lost!

It was a lifetime experience and my heart and mind will cherish it for a long time for sure!

End note

Whenever I look at cosmos wide and far
It reminds me - how insignificant we are!!!

Oh Man! Your ego and pride! What the heck!
Remember, you are living in a speck!


Thanks to BAS members Sudash, Keerthi, Subendu and Shubankar for providing valuable inputs for preparation based on their previous experience.

A special mention about Sudash for arranging accommodation and logistics to transport telescopes and binoculars.

Thanks to the BAS members for helping each other in the entire trip.

Thanks to IIA for sponsoring local transport.

Night sky and milky way photographs were captured by Obuli Chandran, Astrophotographer from Coimbatore. Thanks to Obuli for allowing me to share the photos here.

Thanks to the clouds for staying away for 2 nights! :-)

Ending this write-up with a few pictures.
The Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT)

High Energy Gamma Ray Telescope (HAGAR)

Major Atmospheric Cerenkov Experiment Telescope (MACE)

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