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Star struck

A shot of Venus transiting the Sun in June, taken by amateur stargazer Eric Lim.

Publication Date : 08-08-2012


There is no need to go to outer space to see Jupiter, Saturn or even the craters on the Moon. Catch them from your balcony through a basic telescope that may cost no more than S$300 (US$242).

And for no cost at all, you can join public sessions led by experts. They have the equipment needed, ranging from off-the-shelf telescopes to giant instruments housed in observatories.

Among the sky searchers will be Albert Lim, a founding member of The Astronomical Society of Singapore, or Tasos, one of the oldest of such groups here.

"The Moon's thousands of craters and mountains are visible even with a small telescope. So are Mercury, Venus, Mars, as well as larger planets such as Saturn and Jupiter," said Lim.

Bigger telescopes, though, reveal more detail, contrast and colour.

There are telescopes to match a range of budgets and prices have been falling. Telescopes are now about 20 per cent cheaper than three years ago, said Mr Lim, who also sells telescopic gear.

So it is not a bad idea to buy new ones off the shelf. If you are on a tight budget, look for second-hand gear on local astronomy forum

"Go to public stargazing sessions like the ones at the Science Centre Singapore and try out different telescopes there before you make a choice," advised Remus Chua, 36, founder of Singastro.

Advances in telescope technology have made them easier to use. A printed star map - think of it as a celestial street directory - is still useful. But advanced telescopes allow you to choose what you want to see from a menu with a keypad, and built-in computers and motors will position the telescope just right.

Due to the Earth's rotation, a planet that is perfectly framed in an eyepiece will move out of the frame within minutes. But an advanced instrument will lock on to the chosen object and adjust its position continuously to keep it in view.

The view depends on where you are on Earth. A telescope needs to be aligned before it can find and track celestial targets. With the use of global positioning system technology in the past decade, this task can be automated.

For people who are curious to try scanning the skies without worrying about buying and using their own equipment, opportunities abound, especially on Friday nights.

Start at the Woodlands Galaxy Community Club, which opened this year and is the only one with its own observatory. It holds public sessions on Friday nights.

At the Science Centre Singapore, stargazing sessions began in 1989 when the observatory was built. It started hosting regular Friday night sessions in 2006.

Attendance grew almost 30 per cent to 6,767 in the last financial year, up from 5,228 in the previous year.

Major celestial events also help. A partial solar eclipse on the first day of Chinese New Year this year drew more than 6,400 visitors.

Hardcore enthusiasts are still limited to a small number. Tasos has about 1,000 members, of whom fewer than 100 are active. Singastro has grown to nearly 1,600 members since it was set up in 1997.

However, even with the best equipment, stargazing can be a tricky business. Clouds and man-made light, which artificially brightens the night sky and makes it harder to see stars, are common hindrances.

"Out of about 50 sessions, we may have 10 to 15 cloudy nights. But sometimes, the clouds do clear up," said Andrew James Melia, a senior science educator at the Science Centre.

It has not stopped enthusiasts like IT consultant and astronomy blogger Gary Chee, 39, from sharing the beauty of heavenly bodies with the public. He sets up his telescope for impromptu sessions in places like Bishan Park.

He said with evident pleasure: "I have senior citizens almost in tears. They tell me that in their 60 or 70 years, they have never seen the Moon through a telescope."


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