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The parade of 5 planets: A celestial view from Goa

The parade of 5 planets: A celestial view from Goa

Panaji: At the ghostly hour of 3:30am, while the city of Panaji slept, the wind-swept terrace of the Junta house was abuzz with the activities of a motley group.
They were there to witness the once-in-a-decade alignment of five planets, namely Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. Starting off with the moon, these five wandering planets will be in the same 180-degree-wide patch of sky from January 20 to February 20.
The time for a near-perfect arc of the planet-alignment over Goan skies was set between 5am and 5.30am. The last time this happened was in 2005, the next takes place in 2026. And, on May 6, 2492, the eight planets will come the closest to being aligned.
The terrace buzzed at that early hour with whispered exchanges of forty-five children, all covered in hoodies. These celestial spotters, some as young as 5, are led by Satish Nayak, who runs the amateur Association of friends of astronomy (AFA) club from the Junta House.
The next few hours, till dawn swept the skies, the space-observers exchanged knowledge and spatial wisdom, broke into impromptu discussions, adjusted telescopes, probed the skies and shared telescope sightings.
Satish had 11-year-old Advait explain to onlookers how to spot constellations. Advait traced out Libra, Scorpio, Bootes and Leo with ease. The amateur astronomy crew of 14- and 15-year-olds pulled out smart phones and held them up to the skies, contrasted the screen-show applications with the real display out in the skies, and fixed on positions in the vast space above.
On the sixth floor terrace, those present peered through the eyepiece from 4am till the designated hour. The absolute gasp was reserved for the spotting of the rings of Saturn; the father of Jupiter, the king of the gods and the one with 100-plus moons. Saturn seemed like a mere speck when viewed through the telescope.
After all, the visual distance was 1.2 billion kilometers from humble Earth. The rings around Saturn were clearly visible, there was dark space between the rings and the round planet. Viewers were left stunned. The pictures in books and on TV did not match up.
AFA was celebrating that night as it had received a largesse from friends in the US; a 14-inch Celestron telescope, the largest in Goa.
At some point in the dawning light a satellite darted across the skies. It stood out from the cluster of stars and planets as it sped past seemingly stationary space.

Just as the first daylight seeped in, the AFA team was visibly excited.
Sure enough the spectacle of the planetary world began to unravel. The arc of the five planets across the sky was traced. The slice of moon appeared clear through the telescope craters and all, Mercury a faint spot appeared very close to the horizon, and Jupiter’s moons could be seen dancing in its gravity, Venus markedly larger, and Saturn with its rings, Mars – the Red planet with its distinct reddish tinge and a lot farther from this bunch was Jupiter, majestic in its size. That was the moon and five planetary companions all lined up in celestial wonder.
Goa’s AFAF observatory is the only dedicated public astronomical observatory in the country. Every year between November and May it’s thrown open from 7pm to 9pm for public viewing, at no charge. The club runs centers across Goa at Margao, Mapusa, Vasco and Porvorim and has set up rural observatories in Morjim, Borim, Sankhli and Canacona. The remote locations afford clearer views due to less light pollution – a major factor for unadulterated space observations.
By 7am, the terrace at Junta House was emptied of all the little masters of the universe, satisfied with their observations and with the planetary alignment. They will be ten years older the next time this happens; it helps to start young.

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