KARACHI, Oct 30: Since time immemorial, man has been held in thrall by the magnificence of the heavenly bodies. Some worshiped these celestial objects, while others deduced that there was an even greater power responsible for their creation, placement and brilliance. And as an evening under the stars at the University of Karachi’s observatory proved on Thursday, this fascination with the cosmos shows no sign of fading.The event was titled ‘Planet Watch’ and was put together by the university’s Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics (ISPA) as part of KU’s Space Week celebrations. The night’s mission was to view the moon, Jupiter and Venus through the institute’s antique polar-mounted code refractor telescope, which has been in service now for about four decades.

Quite a few students, along with faculty members and even a couple of hardened astronomy buffs, marched up the hillock which hosts the observatory to listen to the pre-viewing lecture, delivered by ISPA in-charge Dr M. Shahid Qureshi, and thereafter wait for their turn at the telescope for a chance to see the planets. Sure enough, as twilight transformed into darkness and night enveloped the city of lights following the Maghrib prayers, the star-gazers were far from disappointed.

Though the moon made a no-show, Venus and Jupiter did not let their fans down, with Jupiter – the largest planet in the solar system – stealing the show. Considering Thursday was the 30th day of the month of Shawwal and the moon was nowhere in sight, the ISPA head claimed this proved that the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee’s much-debated decision of declaring the end of this past Ramazan was, in fact, erroneous.Jupiter and Venus were visible with the naked eye, the former placed higher in the firmament. For the uninitiated, they looked like extremely bright stars, perhaps one of them being Polaris, the legendary North Star, which the ancients considered a guide in the night sky. However, this false assumption was soon corrected by those in the know as we were told Polaris was located elsewhere.

Venus rising

Soon enough, the telescope was focussed on Venus, the second planet from the sun. Through the lens, it looked like a tiny yellow dot swimming in a see of darkness. The ‘swimming’ effect, we were told, was due to the pollution or atmospheric disturbance in the sky. This reporter was also informed that the inner planets have phases similar to those of the moon.

But Venus paled in comparison to the mighty Jupiter, king of the planets and the fifth planet from the sun. The gas giant – though it looked tiny through the lens considering its gargantuan actual size – appeared yellowish in colour, with what seemed to be its cloud bands, appearing as stripes, clearly visible. Also breathtaking was the view of four of the planet’s 63 moons, seemingly all in alignment.

However, the famed ‘Great Red Spot’ of the planet, a swirling vortex, was not visible. Dr Qureshi told this reporter that it required greater magnification and longer exposures to be seen.

Speaking to Dawn after the Planet Watch, the ISPA head said that nowadays, along with Jupiter and Venus, Saturn is also visible in the morning sky. The ringed planet, he said, is an even more resplendent sight. He said that for half of its synodic period (the time it takes for an object to reappear in the same point in the sky relative to the sun and as observed from Earth) Venus is the Evening Star, while for the other half it is the Morning Star.

Earlier, Dr Shahid Qureshi delivered a lecture on the basics of astronomy. “You don’t need any equipment for astronomy. All you need is a pair of eyes and curiosity about the cosmos,” he told the students. He said that according to initial cosmology, the ancients considered the planets to be a total of seven: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun and the moon (also considered planets). Hence, the days of the week were also seven.

Talking about the observatory’s telescope, he said it had two tubes: the primary tube was fixed towards the North Star while the second tube contained the object lens.

During the question and answer session that followed the lecture, students asked Dr Qureshi about the status of Pluto, which was downgraded from its position as a planet to that of a minor planet by the International Astronomical Union in 2006. He said controversy had surrounded the distant object ever since it was discovered in 1930 and the astronomers’ community had been divided over its classification ever since. Now, it was considered to be one of the Kuiper belt objects, in reference to the region at the outer rim of the solar system.

ISPA’s Space Week events conclude on Saturday, November 1 with a poster competition at the Planetarium. College and university students had been invited to submit entries based on the theme of ‘Exploring the universe.’

Updated Oct 31, 2008 12:00am

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