Guyana Chronicle Feature – June 2016

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Astronomy and Astrophotography in Guyana

By Subraj Singh

Does anyone look at the night-sky anymore? Are we still awed when we do look up or have the many years of walking under a seemingly motionless blanket of stars rendered us to now be unmoved and unimpressed by the many miracles that exist in the wider universe?

Have we really fallen so far away from the traditions of our ancestors who looked at the stars for the signs that fed religions and, therefore, gave birth to culture and civilizations? Is the sky now completely bereft of meaning and fascination for all of us?

In light of everything else that is happening in the world, and in Guyana, are these questions, or anything leading to a discussion of that which we see every night in the sky, still valid or still important? After having a conversation with one of the few amateur astronomers in Guyana, the necessity of asking such questions are sure to become much clearer, with the significance of the answers to such questions leading to a profound analysis of the cosmos and its relationship to the earth and the people who live here.

Ferlin Pedro and his friend Mahendra Mahadeo, both belonging to that field of enthusiastic amateur astronomers and astrophotographers living in Guyana, recently organized an event that allowed the public to experience something they have both been enjoying since they obtained their telescopes: the chance to see the celestial bodies in the night-sky up close and to take pictures of the moon, the planets and the stars.

Ferlin, currently using an Orion Astrograph 10” telescope for scoping out the sky, has noted that before he obtained a telescope, like a lot of people, he “used to simply look up and admire the grandeur of the heavens” saying also that “there’s something about contemplating the vast universe that reinforces our humanity.”

Mahendra, who, in a truly astounding display of creativity, has managed to make, by hand, his own telescope and is perhaps the only person in the country to do so, feels the same way and is as enthused and awed by the cosmos as Ferlin as evidenced when he says, relating astronomy and astrophotography specifically to Guyana, that such events can lead to a further appreciation of our country.

He highlighted the fact that Guyana’s abundance of rural and forested areas coupled with the small population creates many spaces with low light pollution, which is ideal for these types of activities and that our unique location so close to the equator, gives us the perfect vantage point for seeing both the Northern and Southern skies, meaning, according to Mahendra, that “our land of many waters is also one of many stars.” He further noted that astronomy is “a humbling and unifying force” and pointed out Carl Sagan’s excellent passage often referred to as “Reflections on a Mote of Dust” as a way for readers to understand the interconnectivity between the concept of unity in Guyana (and the world) and astronomy.

Having then established that giving the Guyanese public the opportunity to see and take pictures of the celestial bodies can have a greater significance and simply bringing people closer to the stars, and with the necessary tools in place, Ferlin and Mahendra have embarked on a mission to organize several events (Star Parties) where people can come together at specific locations, at specific times, to observe the night sky, which, in all truth, is an event that many Guyanese have never taken part in. Although star parties are popular in many other parts of the world, it is only now becoming a part of the Guyanese consciousness thanks for people like Ferlin and Mahendra.
The first Star Party was held on June 18th at the bandstand on the seawalls, which was selected after days of scouting for potential locations.

At the Star Party, people who indicated an interest and attended based on the invitations that were circulated on social media, as well as random passersby, were allowed the opportunity to use the telescopes to see up close the moon and planets such as Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. It was observed that the dominant reaction upon being introduced to the sky through the telescope was one of wonder and amazement. Mahendra says that on the night of the Star Party,

exclamations of “wow” were “as common as the sound of the waves out in the ocean”, which really does impart the magic that the night sky can have on people. Ferlin called the reactions of the people the best part of the event and pointed out that most “people are used to seeing close up images of the moon and planets on TV or as pictures in magazines or on the internet but it’s quite another thing to see it with your own eyes in real time.” Apart from seeing the planets for the first time, many people at the Star Party also, through discussions and interactions with others who were present, were able to learn more about the universe while meeting new people and making new friends at the same time – which are simply some of other perks of attending a Star Party.
Amateur astronomy seems to be making a comeback in Guyana with the establishment of such events as the Star Parties, and groups like the

University of Guyana Astronomical Society and the Facebook Group, Amateur Astronomers of Guyana. With local amateur astronomers and astrophotographers finding each other and forming hubs such as those, it is possible that in future years, astronomy and astrophotography will only continue to grow and, hopefully, reach the point where a majority of people in Guyana can say that they have actually seen a close up image of the moon in real time. Seeing the celestial bodies, based on reports of the first Star Party, seem to exert a strong unifying force on the group of people who attend the event, and everyone knows that unity is something that our country has been striving towards for years. It does not take much to imagine the scenario: a group of Guyanese people, from varying backgrounds, from different age groups, with different career paths, all connected and unified by their awe and appreciation for the night sky. Star Parties can help Guyana.

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