Uttara Kannada is a land of forests, hills & valleys, rivers, waterfalls, beaches and islands, wildlife, flora & fauna, and a colourful cultural canvas like legendary Yakshagana, Hoovinakolu, historical monuments, architectural wondours and many more. The bountiful nature naturally attracts visitors. But, it has so many hidden, untapped treasures too. One such unique resource is the crystal clear sky.  This clear view of the sky gives birth to fascinating ideas and opportunities. Astro Tourism is one such opportunity that has tremendous potential.

In fact, during 2017, 7 million people flocked to observe the total solar eclipse in the USA.  It revealed the upcoming travel trend and the huge scope for Astro-Tourism.  Astro Tourism refers to any tourism that involves the observation of the night sky, in a location that is devoid of light pollution, using the facilities related to astronomy like observatories or telescopes established or installed in a suitable location. It is an eco-friendly initiative based on sustainable development.

It attracts tourists and travelers towards remote areas as they are comparatively a lot less polluted and to an extent free from artificial lights.  Star gazing or just simply watching the night sky can bring immense amount of peace to a person, may act as an escape from a stressful day at work or the usual hectic routine. Earlier, people used to sleep under the night sky, gazing the constellations and counting the stars.

Astro Tourism is becoming popular in our country also. The Chamoli District of Uttarakhand, located 2,600 meters above sea level is set to be made one of the first Astro-villages in India.  Uttarakhand is attempting to develop Chamoli district entirely for this purpose. India’s first Night Sky Sanctuary is set to be established in Ladakh to boost Astrotourism and to attract foreign researchers to work with high-altitude telescopes in the region.

The Department of Science and Technology undertakes to set up the proposed Dark Sky Reserve at Ladakh’s Hanle as part of the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary. This will be one of the world’s highest-located sites for optical, infrared, and gamma-ray telescopes to boost Astro Tourism in India.

  • Astro-parks are also being developed in Mandu (Madhya Pradesh), Jaipur (Rajasthan), Pangong Lake (Ladakh), Nubra Valley (Leh Ladakh), Rann of Katch (Gujarat), Neil Island (Andaman & Nicobar), Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh).
  • Astrostays, homestays which promote Astro Tourism, are becoming new attractions in the Phyang monastery of Ladakh. The site is being promoted as an astro hub. It offers stargazing experience from the Buddhist cosmology point of view clubbed with modern science.

In the Himalayan region, trained local homestay owners, in the basics of astronomy and know-how of operating telescopes, conduct night sky gazing sessions for incoming tourists.  It has created a new channel of revenue generation for the communities. It has the potential to drive sustainable and responsible tourism, empowering and strengthening communities by diversifying economic bases and creating new opportunities for livelihood creation.

This experiential tourism would eventually bring economic benefits for remote and rural regions that have access to clear night skies while creating unique life-changing experiences for travelers. It will also reduce migration of local youth and help in preserving the local culture. Ladakh’s Astrostay has witnessed more than 600 tourists, bringing in over $25,000 in revenue to villages whose residents have opened their homes. As Astrostays is owned and run by the local communities, the money invested by tourists gets reinvested in local infrastructure.

Astro Tourism in Uttara Kannada

In Uttara Kannada, AGAS360 (Akasha Gange Astronomers, Sirsi) a group of highly enthusiastic young sciencepreneurs, started training in Star Gazing & Sky Observation in 2015 itself,  to personally study the sky and to train the interested in that field.  They have hosted many observational events, trainings, and awareness programs in the short span of 5 years with ordinary camera, binocular and telescope.  At times, they hired telescope from far off Bangalore to organize the event.  

Subsequently, powered by BVT Manipal, began the current mission – “Vision infinity” in 2021. The mission aimed to reach school students with innovative ideas and scientific programs especially in the field of Astronomy.  Thanks to BVT Manipal, they could procure the following sophisticated equipments, (which are available in merely 2-3 other places in Karnataka):

  1. Telescope
  2. Telescope
  3. Camera
  4. Laptop & Accessories

With the help of these, they could work wondours. They conducted training programmes in more than 65 schools, colleges and organisations covering an audience of  more than 4800 audience. They have captured rare photographs of celestial events, videos of all the phases of moon, etc. They were successful in attracting many scholars and sky-lovers to Sirsi.

Commercial Ventures in India

Astro-Tourism has given scope to commercial ventures also.  Starscapes Experiences Private Limited, a private company incorporated in September 2021, with an objective to offer opportunities for people to experience nature like never before, has set up a Mobile Stargazing Observatory in the outskirts of Jaipur town. It is also establishing a permanent astronomical observatory in Jaipur and plans to start   chain of observatories. 

It aims to popularize Sky Exploration like Wildlife safaris, nature walks, treks and water activities.   This mobile observatory is surrounded by Nature Farms, making it an ideal stargazing location and it offers a holistic astronomical experience, with a variety of activities both during the day and at night, ranging from stargazing safaris to astrophotography and sun observation.  It has been gaining momentum.  A trained astronomy expert will guide the visitors on their stargazing journey.

 “Starscapes has permanent observatories set up in Bhimtal and Kausani. “This will be equipped with a high-end 8-inch or 11-inch motorized Go-To telescope, mounted on a fixed plinth inside a permanent structure with a moveable roof. Other equipment such as high end DSLR cameras, planetary cameras and special photographic mounts will help astrophotography enthusiasts find their calling here. There will also be a souvenir store and a museum-cum-experience centre,” Paul said.

Geographic Uniqueness of Sirsi

Could we see stars in broad daylight? We cannot; as the sunlight outpowers the brightness of faraway celestial objects.  The same problem is faced during night due to bright city lights.  Mild objects like nebulae get completely faded out.  Observers call it Light Pollution.  Light Pollution increases due to air pollution also as the dust particles and other gaseous emissions scatter light. In an article of February 2001, published by Sky and Telescopes Magazine, John E. Bortle classified darkness of the sky into 9 levels. This is called the Bortle Scale today.

For Astronomers, this is a key parameter for deciding a location to conduct observations.  In this scale, Class 1 is the best possible sky for observation, whereas Class 9 is used to describe nights at the heart of a metropolis. The Bortle scale with global light pollution data from the VIIRS Satellite is available in astronomy-related forums and dedicated sites. According to satellite data, vast area around Sirsi town n Uttara Kannada turns out to have Class-2 Sky. The center of Sirsi town is at Class-3.
(light pollution map attached).

The connectivity is good enough with state highways, and is also a location with so many schools and colleges.  The Western Ghats is one of the clearest and darkest regions in India and is well suited for this purpose.  For comparison, Bengaluru has Class-7 through Class-9 skies.  One has to drive hundreds of kilometers to find a good observation spot in such a scenario.

Jaipur, where mobile and permanent observatories are being established, is in the class-5 category. (Ooty is in Class-4 scale, whereas the observatory in Kausani and the upcoming one in Madikeri (Coorg) are in Class-3 locations. Some other locations: Pangong Lake – Class-1, Leh Town, Manali – Class-3, Lonavla, Darjeeling, Anjuna Beach (Goa), Shimla – Class-4) The Western Ghats is often credited for its environment. In fact, it’s skies have a yet striking magnificence, (due to meager air pollution also).  This feature too would be one of the reasons why people visit this place. 

Promotion of Astro-Tourism

While choosing locations, one has to balance darkness of the skies (which is a result of remoteness of the location) and accessibility (which is better when closer to towns, proportionally increasing light pollution).  As regions around Sirsi are located in Class-2 Sky region, have good road connectivity and    have resorts and farmhouses in the vicinity, which bring with them food and stay facilities. If we succeed in presenting astrophotographs repeatedly in a never experienced before quality among mainstream science media. Given the skill set of this team, this is fairly possible.

Programs and Activities

Like Planetoriums, even the observatories can offer different types of programmes, for students, research scholars, tourists, traditional scholars, etc. 

  • Stargazing sessions: A guided session by guides to gain knowledge about the universe.
  • Sun Observation: Safe viewing of the Sun is being offered by the observatory to discover some fascinating aspects about the Sun.
  • Experiential Science Activities: Science activities are being offered to give visitors an insight into the working knowledge of things like cameras, rockets and their journey to space, etc.
  • Star parties: Star parties aim to offer things like stargazing safari and astrophotography.
  • Selfie with the stars to let visitors click selfies against a backdrop of stars.

Starscapes Jaipur observatory: Cost and pricing

Paul told FE Online, “Guests can participate in various activities during the day, which include experiential science activities – each of which may start for as low as Rs. 200, and last for 30 minutes to an hour. Apart from this, there are observation sessions and workshops around the sun. And at night, there are shows of the sky – 45 minutes to one hour – ranging from Rs. 300 to Rs. 1000. There are also merchandise that you can buy, from simple DIY kits costing Rs. 100 to mid-range telescopes at Rs. 50,000.”

For instance, schools may have astronomy clubs where astrophysics activities can be held, photographers have special workshops focused on astrophotography, individual astronomers may set up a telescope and talk about the stars to those in their circles. adventure tourists may travel to dark sky locations to enjoy a night under the stars. These are some of the offerings that get classified as astro-tourism.

Astro Tourism Way Forward

Precautions

Star gazing can be an experience of a lifetime but it has its own problems and limitations. A cloudy sky, torrential rains, snow fall, etc  may ruin one’s plans. So checking the weather of the proposed location in advance is highly essential.   In the coming years India can become a hub of tourists and researchers in the field of Astro Tourism.\ A great scope for astro tourism which won’t only promote tourism in Ladakh but also provide ample opportunities to the locals to earn their bread!  Will identify various locations where telescopes would be installed for the use of tourists.

Indian Astronomical Observatory, Hanle, shall guide and train the locals so that they remain updated with night sky chart to highlight the nightly event.  combine stargazing with community development.  Guides are locals who have been trained in astronomy and taught to use the telescope. The revenue generated from the astro tourism facility was pumped back into the community to build solar water heaters. We estimate that developing these homestays would cost us around Rs 1.4 crore and procuring four to six telescopes would cost around Rs 60 lakh. We want locals to run the entire enterprise, and therefore, they will receive training as well,.

“If the project is to succeed, the locals will need training and therefore, our students and professors with all the required technical aspects. Astro-tourism is being regarded as the next big travel trend in the years to come. In India, places Ladakh and Kutch have already started to attract tourists that are interested in gazing at heavenly bodies. The Canara Trail similar to the Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) has also taken up another initiative with the International Astronomical Union in order to expand the scope of astro-tourism in Uttara Kannada.  The sky is the limit for astro tourism. So, Uttara Kannada Tourism should Eyes On The Skies.

Shooting the Shooting Stars

Probably nothing is as interesting and curious as Astronomy regardless of age, gender, class or background.  The number of people likely to get involved in the process is very huge. Answers to many of them are yet to be discovered. Observational Astronomy is a very appealing field. When many people with similar interests come together, they naturally interact with each other regarding their unanswered questions.

But knowledge acquired from a field like Astronomy is not limited to the sky alone. That’s how scientific interactions are. Ideas from various other fields of science are involved while figuring out something.  This in fact is a brilliant hway to build a scientific fraternity. A community of amateurs and common people, who’ve come across even the very basic idea about the universe and its wonders, can then form a well-informed society. Young students can find their interest in the field of science in more numbers.

Science is rather a creative process but unfortunately, the curriculum hasn’t been designed well enough for it. Chances are that many lose interest or feel it unimaginably difficult in the midway. Of course, it is a difficult field; but acquiring strong fundamental ideas and skill set in its application makes them well equipped for it.  On the other hand, decisions made by knowledgeable adults in a society will be much effective in an extreme scenario.

For instance, in the present pandemic situation of Covid-19, various misinformations were spread through media. They created severe complications in handling the situation. If the common people were a little more able to validate or at least fact-check what they hear, things could have been easier. So, groundwork is essential. Observational Astronomy is an optimum way, to begin with. But, neither there is any such institution in this region to guide people in this field, nor any planetarium to offer accessibility. This motivated some of our young enthusiasts to take an initiative.

They formed AGAS360 (Akasha Gange Astronomers, Sirsi) during December 2015 to personally study the sky and to train the interested in that field.  They have hosted many observational events, trainings, and awareness programs in the short span of 5 years with ordinary camera, binocular and telescope.  At times, they hired telescope from far off Bangalore to organize the event. By covering both scheduled frequent events and rare events of the sky with catchy astro-photographs, their skill set and knowledge has developed well with time. But high-end tools are very essential in taking their initiative to the next level.

Objectives of the Project

  1. To establish a Sky-Observation Training Centre by procuring necessary instruments and tools.
  2. To organize Sky-Observation Camps for the benefit of students as well as interested public.
  3. To arrange talks, symposiums, workshops and seminars to discuss the subtle issues connected with celestial phenomena as well as other burning science topics.
  4. To arrange science competitions and exhibitions to motivate the children to innovate and to understand scientific subjects in a better manner. 
  5. To create platform of resource persons and interested students and public to interact with each other to understand the issues. 
  6. To start Certificate Courses for the benefit of the students, which would help them in pursuing higher studies and research. 
  7. To coordinate with other groups engaged in similar activities.

The Scope

Children are the future of our nation.  If we are able to inspire as well as inform them, it would surely enhance their comprehension of the subject.  They in turn would become better scientists, engineers or experts in different fields.  This process will surely pave the way for nation building. Uttara Kannada district, at present, has more than 385 secondary schools in addition to more than 967 higher primary schools.  Further, there are more than 45 Pre-University Colleges / Junior Colleges and about 14 degree colleges. The proposed venture would be insufficient to reach all the students (more than 50000) in these secondary schools and junior colleges.  The core team plans to reach as many institutions as possible and identify the interested to form the fraternity pursue their passion.      

Significance of the Project

Imagine a clear, dark sky.  There are so many stars visible to the unaided eye.  If one is keen enough, he might observe that they are of different colors.  What is the reason for their color? Why do they twinkle? And then there are bright patches in the sky which appear smudgy.  They appear very different than that from stars.  What are these smudgy objects? What are they made of?  What are those things that glow and fall from the sky?

Finding answers to such very basic questions from observation of the sky requires supportive ideas like Atomic Emission, Spectrometry, Black-body Radiation, Gravitation, Optics, and ultimately Cosmology – the study of the origin and evolution of the Universe itself. Planets, stars, galaxies, nebulae, clusters, etc. have got so many questions to offer that the observer ends up visiting many different branches of science in search of the answers.

If not for this reason, many of those fields would not appear as interesting to a common man with no scientific background. The colors they have; the shapes they form are like the sugar coating on an otherwise difficult to consume medicine. Astrophotography is visually very appealing that it has become a form of art in the present day which at the same time teaches some very technical things you might never come across in formal education.

Research Scope & Methodology

Sky catalogues and image data from various parts of world are collected in a huge quantity by research agencies. Reason is that so many events occur in a night and are observable from only some parts of the Earth but not the rest (which experience daylight at that time). And also, some studies require higher number of sampling from different locations.

Almost all discoveries and updates of passing-by asteroids, comets etc. are done by some observational astronomer, with a telescope; sitting in his backyard. Because, even if national space agencies have frontline state of the art equipment, their focus of interest is something more advanced and generally towards a particular part of the sky. But numerous events happen in other parts of the sky too on a regular basis which aren’t caught in action by them. Whereas, observational astronomers are worldwide; scoping different parts of the sky every now and then. They are more likely to find these updates before anyone else.

Instruments & Tools

  1. Sky Watcher BKDOB 16″ Telescope
  2. Nikon D-850 Full Frame Camera
  3. William Optics ZS 81 APO Refractor
  4. Tamron SPDIVCG-2 Telephoto Lens
  5. Samyang SY14MAE-N Wide Angle Lens
  6. Eye Pieces ranging from 6 mm to 40 mm
  7. Auto-guiding Corrector Assembly for Imaging
  8. Tri-band Optical Filters
  9. Equatorial Mount
  10. Binoculars
  11. MH550 Projector
  12. High Configuration Customised Computer
  13. Accessories

Core Team

Mr. Vasant Hegde M.Sc. Physics, Founder, AGAS360.                                                         

With more than 5 years of experience in the field of education and observational astronomy he is the current Head Master of Shri Sharadamba English Medium Highschool, Bhairumbe. Mostly found interacting with students and organizing scientifically informative awareness programs.  He is the Resource Person for Science to Dept. of Public Instructions, Sirsi Educational District.

Founded the informal group Arivu-Achchari (Knowledge-Wonder) for discussion and dissemination of scientific principles and fundamentals. Served as Guest Faculty in Sristhi P U College, Dharwad & MES PU College Sirsi in the past.  Has also guided more than 60 talented students for IIT-JEE and many of them have succeeded in their endeavour.  Has guided students for Inspire Award and was successful in taking the theme – “White Balancing of Human Eye while Driving during Night” (which has industrial potential) – to the National Level. 

Mr. Vibhav Mangalore, B.Sc. (PMCs Final Year)

Though he is pursuing his graduation in science, he has acquired multi-disciplinary skills.  He is a budding astro-photographer.  He can not only operate various instruments with precision, but can also customize one as per requirement.  He is highly talented in Image Processing. He visited Cheruvathur in Kerala and captured the Annular Solar Eclipse in December 2019.     He is one of the strong persons behind AGAS360. 

Summary

The proposed project aims to procure essential, bare minimum, instruments and tools to conduct Sky-Observation Training Programmes in a better and effective manner.  The thrust will be on kindling curiosity among students.  This training will be a means to tap the potential youth with keen interest in basic science.   Further, if properly highlighted, the pristine atmosphere of Uttara Kannada (evergreen Western Ghats) would certainly attract scientists and scholars from across the globe for sky-observation.   

Conclusion

This project is the beginning of a long journey for building a scientific fraternity.  The basic thrust of the project is on education to enable the future generations to understand the wondourful and curious sky and its phenomena, through inspiring practical teaching infrastructure.  This way, the project plans to inspire the students of the region and this can be replicated elsewhere also.