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Umesh Ghude set up his telescope on city streets to help generate interest in astronomy.
Umesh Ghude set up his telescope on city streets to help generate interest in astronomy.

The IT analyst who’s reaching for the stars to weed out superstition

In India we have these fears about astronomical events, like if a comet comes close to the Earth, or if there is a solar or lunar eclipse, people are afraid. We’re looking to bring them out of this superstitious thinking

Umesh Ghude’s fascination with outer space began when he was 10. It was the Columbia space shuttle disaster, in which all seven crew members including Indian-origin astronaut Kalpana Chawla died, that piqued his interest in astronomy. “That incident was the spark. It got me interested in the world of astronomy and physics," says Ghude, 26.

After completing school, Ghude took a course in astronomy and astrophysics at the Nehru Planetarium, a year-long certificate programme taught in conjunction with Mumbai University. He attended lectures and participated in stargazing trips to Karjat, Saralgao and Murbad. “After completing the course, I attended a few more stargazing events," he says. “But they all showed the same things, explaining the constellations and planets. So I thought it would be great if I started doing this on my own, with more in-depth exploration."

With the encouragement of his mentors, author and astronomer Mohan Apte, almanac-maker D.K. Soman and Nehru Planetarium course coordinator Prabhu Velar, Ghude started Amateur Astronomy Club, in 2012. He enlisted a few of his former classmates from the astronomy programme and armed with two telescopes—one 70mm Celestron that belonged to a classmate and one 130mm Celestron Astromaster that Ghude bought —started going out on stargazing trips to Mahuli, Saralgao and Naneghat.

Initially, to generate interest in the club, Ghude and his team took their telescopes out to Mumbai streets, and offered passers-by the opportunity to see the stars for themselves. The exercise helped popularize the club.

At present, each of their overnight stargazing trip involves up to 50 people. Trips usually take place twice a month, around the new moon, on a Saturday night. An overnight trip to Naneghat, including food, stay and transport costs 2,500, while a trip to Tokawade, which doesn’t include food or transport, is priced 500.

The club also conducts customized events and workshops for schools and other institutions. The events are all volunteer-led, and all profits go into the club to fund the purchase of better equipment. The team has five telescopes, Celestron binoculars, a dual-axis tracking motor for deep sky photography, and special lenses that can be used to photograph star trails and the Milky Way.

The most expensive investment, a collapsible Dobsonian Sky-watcher telescope that costs 1.5 lakh, was bought with contributions from club members.

The work-space debate

Ghude has always been clear that he wants to nurture his pursuit of astronomy as a passion, not as a profession.

As for his full-time job as an IT analyst at travel company Veena World, Ghude considers it to be a benefit rather than a hindrance. Since most stargazing happens in the evenings, he is able to find time to stargaze after work hours and overnight on weekends.

On special celestial occasions, like the Mercury transit of 2016 or the total lunar eclipse in January 2018, Ghude sets up his telescope on the terrace of his corporate office in Vidyavihar and invites co-workers to observe the stars with him.

“They’re happy to be able to experience that kind of thing at their workplace," he says. Some of his colleagues have participated in the club’s stargazing trips

While Ghude’s club is doing well in terms of number of participants, it does face a formidable obstacle: pollution.

Naneghat, where Ghude witnessed the Milky Way for the first time in 2014, is now a tourist hub, with a string of resorts that keep their lights on throughout the night. The horizon is also disturbed by a halo of ambient city lights.

“It’s the only place we have right now which is secure, with provisions for toilets and food, and is easily accessible from Mumbai. But I don’t know if in the coming years, the place will be suitable for stargazing," he says.

Ghude doesn’t have an alternative location in mind; a more plausible solution, he says, would be to work towards reducing light pollution. Eventually, Ghude plans to set up his own observatory, complete with a dome telescope and top of the line stargazing equipment. At the fundamental level, the club is Ghude’s way of extending scientific knowledge to the community. “We are looking forward to reaching out to as many rural areas as possible," he says. “In India we have these fears about astronomical events, like if a comet comes close to the Earth, or if there is a solar or lunar eclipse, people are afraid," he says. “We’re looking to bring them out of this superstitious thinking. Science is a ray of hope, for us to develop in a better way."

The Makers follows professionals who spend weekends working on their hobbies.

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