Trekking through the stars
India’s first and only chain of observatories, Starscapes, is busy creating sparkling astronomy experiences across the country
Scouring the sky is all about discovering your special moment. As your eye bobs from the star-spangled spread to perhaps spotting a meteor shower and then suddenly focusing onto an enigmatic planet, brooding in the far recesses of the cosmos. It is the cryptic draw of the galaxy that draws you to peep into the heavens. Gazing into outer space has always been the frame setting for comics, with wise gems in blurbs. But if you thought that a tour of the night sky was the privy of locales abroad, think again. Redefining conversation in the space are Ramashish Ray, Founder, and Paul Savio, CEO and Co-founder, Starscapes—the new age pioneers of astro-tourism, opening up views of the Milky Way for cosmophiles pan India.
“It is possibly the first memory of stargazing I have, as an urban kid. A clear summer sky in a Kerala village, with only a wispy trail streaking the cloudless expanse. My father murmured, ‘that’s not a cloud. That’s the Milky Way’,” says Paul. In a flash, it struck him that he was staring at millions of stars. It was a humbling experience. “I don’t remember many details of that day—the year, month, colour of the parapet… But what I distinctly recollect is the feeling that hit me at that moment. The sense of discovery, riding on the enormous realisation of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe, was overwhelming and life-changing. It is this feeling that forms the core of astro-tourism,” says Paul, the stars shining in his eyes.
Call it a star party of a different kind, redefining conversation with space. “Unfortunately, unless you’re a serious cosmophile with a lot of time to spare, there aren’t too many readily available resources that can help you on this journey,” shares Ramashish. “It is on this insight that our company Starscapes is based. We create experiences to get you to experience and enjoy the cosmos better: Observe the night sky, track sunspots, experientially, build rockets, model sundials, learn about cameras, become an astrophotographer, visit dark sky locations, or buy telescopes and set up your own backyard observatory… It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete beginner, or an expert astrophysicist—you’ll find something to do here.”
Ray is an amateur astronomer himself, with a cottage in Kausani, Uttarakhand, where he had pegged a telescope. Whoever stayed here was thrilled to explore the night sky. “This prompted us to set up a small observatory there with ticketed shows. People who visited were not searching for astro experiences; they were just looking for something new. This insight led to us creating a platform to provide casual astronomy experiences to everyone, in 2017,” he says.
With Virgin Galactic opening up ticket sales for a flight into space, and the buzz around NASA going back to the Moon in 2024, the interest in space has opened up sizably. Starscapes has launched a mobile observatory at Jaipur recently. With others at Kausani and Bhimtal, what made the level of light pollution at Jaipur congenial for the star show? “We choose the location keeping in mind the light pollution (how dark the sky is), weather (number of cloudless days) and accessibility (how well connected the place is),” says Paul. With commercials linked to astronomy enthusiasts, it is critical for the business model to be present at locations at a drive away from big towns.
“The locations we finalise have fairly dark skies, measuring four or less on the Bortle scale (a measure of night-sky darkness, one being extreme remote locations and 9 being inner cities). The locations are also importantly tourist spots, since novel experiences are sought out and best enjoyed by tourists,” he explains. “The two impediments to stargazing are clouds and ‘light pollution’—the latter caused by artificial lights (homes, streetlights, vehicles) that cause a smoggy haze. Stars vary in size and in distance from the earth, both of which affect the clarity with which you can see them.
Cities are generally eight or nine on the Bortle scale, where you can only see the moon, the planets and a few of the brightest stars. Even the constellations with the brightest stars are barely discernible. A Class 1 location on the Bortle scale is the other extreme, usually found miles away from any dwelling (in the middle of the forest, large lakes, deep in the mountains, open seas, etc.) This is a good illustration of the visibility grades. Jaipur is in the class 5 category on a scale of 9, making it one among the prime locations for stargazing. A number of locations within the city and on the outskirts offer exceptional views of the night sky.”
Clearly, this stargazing safari doesn’t need you to squint to spot the celestial world. The concept of Selfie with the Stars is facilitated with a composite photo taken with you in the foreground, with the starry sky or constellation or galaxy in the background. Captured in a minute, the image is processed in an hour, as a memento. Too lazy? Look-ups at Your Doorstep brings the universe to you in a telescope. Astroparties are picking up with bonfire, food and music with a livestream of the view through the telescope projected on a screen.
“We have brought these experiences alive in Kausani, Spiti, Narkanda, Gethia and Sandhan,” says Paul. “The sense of discovery is unbeatable. When you look up at the sky, you see a big white moon, or two bright stars that never twinkle. Experience them through the telescope to see the craters, flat grey surfaces, highlands, and see the two ‘stars’ to be Jupiter, a big disc with a giant red dot, and the other is the ringed Saturn. The universe is so much more complex than what you see, with so much left to discover.”
What’s next? “Broad-basing our offerings across the country and opening observatories in 28 towns in India over next three years, rolling out tours and parties in partnership with travel operators, resorts and hotels to touch as many people as possible,” they sign off.