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Stargazers reach for the stars
By Tan Weiyun

They gaze up at the nighttime sky, marvel at the magnificent galaxies and nebulae and take photos of celestial bodies and events. They chase eclipses across China and chart the motions of the stars.

By day they are teachers, engineers, office workers and other professionals. But by night, when it's clear, they pick up their telescopes and duffle bags, jump in the car and head to remote open fields and hills, far from the air pollution and light pollution in the downtown.

The whole night is spent observing the solar system, other galaxies and constellations.

Better yet, they plan in advance for a few clear nights and take a trip to set up their equipment; that can mean heading off to a particularly good spot to camp and await a dramatic eclipse of the sun or moon and other celestial phenomena.

These stargazers in a star-besotted city hate the bright lights and pollution that make it impossible to observe and appreciate the heavens as their ancestors did.

Plans to build the city's first planetarium (Shanghai Daily October 11) are heartening but won't change the viewing habits of these amateur astronomers who prefer to rough it on a clear night. Then there are those who ponder astrophysics and prefer to sit at their home computers and study the heavens.

It has not been decided where the planetarium will be built or when ground will be broken. The Shanghai Astronomical Observatory Songjiang Observation Station in suburban Songjiang District, better known as Sheshan Observatory, is a history museum, though its telescope is also used for research. It's a popular place for student field trips, though it's not a haven for astronomy geeks, Trekkies and UFO hunters.

Art designer Wu Jingping just returned from Tianhuangping Village in Zhejiang Province, a popular site for astronomical observation. There are few buildings, spacious fields and little artificial light.

Wu, a 39-year-old Beijing local, is armed with a beginner's telescope and tripod, camera and attached compute.

"These are just the basics for an amateur, some fanatics splurge and spend thousands of yuan on equipment," Wu tells Shanghai Daily in an interview.

Wu made his first primitive telescope in high school with a magnifying glass and sheet of paper. "It worked very well. I could see the moon clearly," he says.

Throughout school he was passionate about astronomy, but when he moved to Shanghai in 1993 for a job, he was frustrated.

"Shanghai is always cloudy and busy. I couldn't find a place where I could watch the stars," he says.

Last year he visited the observatory in Songjiang and that reignited his interested in the heavens. He bought basic equipment and found fellow stargazers through the Internet.

Every month or two, they drive for hours and pitch tents in the remote countryside where the skies are clear.

Wu's recent trip to Tianhuangping was a small victory because he was the only one in his group to photograph M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, the spiral galaxy nearest to the Milky Way.

"The sky was very cloudy that night and we could only see the galaxy for around 20 minutes, so I had to hurry," Wu recalls.

While everyone was adjusting their telescopes and computers, Wu skipped all the preparation and aimed directly for the galaxy, snapping photos. Though the result was a bit fuzzy, "it was better than nothing," he says with pride.

Good picture taking requires a series of complicated procedures and meticulous adjustments of telescopes linked to computers. "The celestial objects you observe are moving at an extremely slow speed that the naked eye cannot notice, so it's very important to follow and track its slow motion for hours within the minimum deviation," Wu says.

The common practice is to aim the polar axis of the telescope at the North Star. The main lens is focused on the celestial object, while a smaller eyepiece, which is linked to a computer, is aimed at a certain fixed star. "Keep the fixed star always in the center of the small eyepiece controlled by the computer and you'll track the object accurately," Wu says.

He usually takes around 25 shots, each requiring a long exposure of around two minutes. "That's to say it takes at least an hour," he says.

Usually it takes a whole night to capture the desired images. "You might think it's boring and tiring because all night is spent waiting and waiting. But once you see the stunning view in deep space through the telescope, it's all worth it," he says.

On a clear night this season if an observer looks east at around midnight, he or she can see a big shining star, Jupiter. At around 3am, once can see Venus with a simple telescope.

"Observation like this is quite easy for a beginner," Wu says. "Once you get interested in astronomy, you will marvel at the vast universe and feel how tiny we humans are."

Celestial zealot

Luo Fangyang built a do-it-yourself telescope with a 203mm eyepiece capable of seeing craters on the moon, Saturn's rings, Jupiter's bands of color, the constellation Orion and various deep-sky objects. He says it wasn't hard to assemble because the techniques and principles are very simple.

Luo, a 40-year-old office worker at a chemical company, is a celestial zealot. He follows each eclipse visible in China, positions himself for the best observations, takes photos, paints pictures, and writes poetry and songs about the heavens.

The visit of Halley's Comet (it calls on Earth every 75 to 76 years) in 1986 captured the imagination of eighth-grader Luo from Taicang in Jiangsu Province. That year his parents gave him a 50mm telescope and on cold, clear nights he watched the moon and stars. "Of course, I could see nothing with such a simple telescope," he recalls.

But the vast universe drew him in. In 1987, Liu saw his first annular eclipse of the sun, in which the moon covered all but a ring of fire. He viewed it through a pair of sunglasses and a basin of black ink water. He was exhilarated.

Luo volunteered to teach astronomy in two primary schools in Taicang every week. He compiled his own materials for the pupils and adapted stories from Chinese mythology into astronomy lessons.

He still works and volunteers in Taicang, but every semester Luo organizes field trips to the Sheshan Observatory.

Stargazing can be frustrating when bad weather interferes with observation, especially of rare phenomena.

In May Luo successfully photographed the partial solar eclipse from a deserted bridge in Taicang but was unable to capture Venus transiting the sun in June because of overcast skies. In August, a mudslide caused by heavy rains made it impossible for him to observe the famous annual Perseid meteor shower.

"Astronomy is such an interesting science, and depends mostly on the weather and environment," Luo says. "The most amazing thing is that it's probably the only science you can't touch, smell and experiment on. All you can do is to observe."

Because some celestial events happen only once in a long time, or a lifetime, missing one can mean missing it forever.

"Many observers who miss out are sad for a long time, like me," Luo says. "It's no exaggeration that some fanatics even suffer deep depression. It's such a pity if you miss something that only happens every 100 years, or longer."

But for amateur astronomer Wang Jie, field observation is boring and a waste of time. He, too, is dedicated to the stars but describes his interest as "purely theoretical."

Wang observes stars and deep space objects but seldom goes outside. "Why bother? I can get clear, first-hand pictures from the Internet," he says. "I'm much more interested in different theories of the universe. Those passionate observers chase, observe and photograph. So what? Can they take better pictures than the professionals?"

Theoretical observers often have more thorough and integrated knowledge than astronomical "men of action," says Wang. "We prefer spending our precious time on books to waiting in the cold dark night."

The 35-year-old software engineer has published several popular books on astronomy and physics for laymen.

A volunteer at Sheshan Observatory, Wang is a star among visitors, especially children on field trips.

How many stars are there in the universe? How old is the universe? He is bombarded with questions.

Wang tells them that the number of stars in the universe is the total of grains of sand all over the world. He says that's "1 followed by 18 zeros." As for the age of the universe, he says it's around 13.7 light years old.

Or course, he is asked about UFOs and life on other worlds. His response is that scientists believe there is life of some kind out there, but at this time, there is no proof.

Sweet memory

Gu Xiaochun, a 30-year-old businessman, chases eclipses, booking trains or flights so he will be in position. He has a telescope and observers, but he never takes pictures.

"Sometimes the beautiful moments are best preserved in memory," Gu says, citing all the technical adjustments necessary to photograph the skies.

In the summer of 2009, observers in Shanghai missed the total eclipses of the sun because of heavy rain. But Gu had been prepared because he followed the forecasts. He booked a flight to Wuhan in Hubei Province and caught the eclipse that happens once every 300 years.

Gu recalls his first unforgettable Leonids meteor shower in 2001 when he was a college student sneaking into Sheshan Observatory with dorm mates on a cold and windy November night. Gu lay on the roof.

"I just lay there for the whole three hours as meteor showers flew across the sky, one after another. It was so beautiful and magnificent that words cannot describe it," he says. He still gets excited when he remembers that night.

That night Gu called his girlfriend and they shared the moment under the same sky, though she didn't join him on the rooftop. Today they are married and have a baby.

His father says the first word he learned was xing xing or star.

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