Colombo is a rare metropolis that contains suburbs where, if one were to look up at the evening sky, one might be lucky enough to be treated to an awe-inspiring glimpse of the starry heavens. This cannot perhaps be said anymore of many other capital cities around the world, as human endeavor in these places continues to discharge increasing amounts of particulate effluent, fogging the lower atmosphere.
The past six months has seen an almost unprecedented spell of continuous evening showers, which left the night skies over Colombo completely overcast, and the air damp, humid and murky. However, as Christmas 2015 approached, nature seemed to relent, and the heavens cleared up on 23rd December, to reveal its full splendor.
The constellation Orion, The Hunter Of The Heavens for the ancient Greeks, is seen above almost exactly as one would see it with the naked eye. Orion is one of the most prominent zodiacal constellations visible from Colombo in December, along with Sagittarius (the Archer) and Scorpio (the Scorpion). These constellations contain rich star-fields, which would fascinate the novice and the experienced stargazer alike. Betelgeuse for example, the bright reddish star on the bottom-left in the above picture, is a massive Red Supergiant with a shockingly big radius of 821 million kilometers! Our little Sun’s radius is a mere half a million km. What is even more intriguing is that Betelgeuse is foreseen to explode as a Supernova, sometime in the not too distant future. Happening a “mere” 640 light-years away from the Solar System, this calamity may have earthly consequences. Orion also contains Regal, the seventh-brightest star in the night sky, which is the bright blue dot on the top right.
This December was “special” because the full moon, captured above around 9.45 PM on 25th December, fell on Christmas day. This rather rare happenstance will not repeat itself until 2034.
Spotting Pleiades, the closest star cluster to earth and seen faintly to the naked eye in the constellation Taurus, is a good test of one’s eyesight. The seven blue stars visible to the naked eye – known to the ancient as the “Seven Sisters” – can be made out to be a cluster of many more, when seen through a telescope or photographed with a small DSLR camera (see below). Pleiades is a “young” cluster of stars of a mere 100 million years or so old, and it is actually a condensing mass of interstellar gas where new stars are forming, and is located approximately 450 light-years from us.
The virgin skies over Sri Lanka’s dry zone regions like Polonnaruwa and Hambantota are near perfect for astrophotography; the Hambantota coast in particular is known amongst local amateur astronomers for such astronomical delights as the naked eye sighting of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, or for photographing Jupiter’s Galilean moons orbit their celestial master through a small telescope (see below). With the right investment in small observatories that are made accessible to roving astronomers, there is potential for an “astrotourism” to develop in Sri Lanka, to parallel what countries like Chile are presently enjoying.
The grandmaster of chess Viswanathan Anand once said “I have a love for astronomy; Aruna, my wife, and I love travelling, so whenever we get an opportunity, we set off to explore places that have tickled our interest.” The skies over Lanka could be such a place, for such pondering travellers…
Story | Ruwan Rajapakse
Photographs | Orion, Pleiades and the moon – Ruwan Rajapakse, Jupiter’s moons – Nilu Rajapakse