It’s that time of the year when the earth’s revolution around the sun enables southern hemisphere residents to have the best views of the night sky. Most of the brightest constellations are opposite the sun in the sky from southern latitudes, meaning they rise after sun set and are visible through the night. Summer nights make for clear skies to take advantage of this ideal positioning of the stars.
The sky comes to life after sunset and thousands upon thousands of stars take their position in different directions. The brightest of them all, Sirius, rises an hour before sunset. By 7:30 pm when the sky gets dark enough, Sirius twinkles furiously in multi-colour, 30 degrees above the horizon in the East. Sirius rises to the zenith by midnight and stays in the sky through the night, setting just before daybreak. Since heavenly bodies are at their brightest when nearer the horizon, Sirius can also be viewed nicely in the West just before sunrise.
On the opposite side of the sky is a planetary conjunction that is sure to excite. Venus and Mercury can be viewed by naked eye in the West just after sunset. Venus is the brighter of the two planets and is situated slightly above Mercury. While the ‘evening star’ can be seen for a few months every year, Mercury is a bit elusive and is rarely seen by naked eye. I couldn’t hide my excitement when I saw the foremost planet for the first time a few weeks back.
At around 9pm, the biggest planet, Jupiter, rises in the North East and is bright enough to be seen without any visual aid. Unlike Venus and Mercury which set less than an hour after sun set, Jupiter stays in the sky throughout the night. After a few months of cloudy skies the heavens seem eager to make up for the lost months of star gazing, if the celestial traffic is anything to go by.
I had the pleasure of viewing the sky away from the pollution of city lights when I travelled to Isiolo County recently. The sheer number of stars shocks you the first time. The novelty never wears off with subsequent viewings. I spent significant time with my eyes firmly fixed to the sky. Northern Kenya is sparsely populated and few areas are connected to the national grid. The absence of light pollution coupled with clear ‘desert’ nights devoid of fog make for excellent skies for star gazing. Google Sky Map proved a useful guide in locating the major constellations among the numerous star clusters, something I can only dream of in Nairobi.
My people have a rich astronomical tradition as a consequence of living in this natural laboratory. They have names for different stars and constellations which they use to make sense of the world around them. For instance, the heliacal setting of the Seven Sisters constellation (which they refer to as Busan) marks the beginning of the long rains. The Orion constellation is explained as a man and his three dogs hunting three big elephants.
As I took in the magnificence of it all, I couldn’t help but wonder why Kenya doesn’t market itself as an astro-tourism destination. Countries like Namibia are taking advantage of similar conditions to market themselves as major celestial safari destinations, attracting visitors from across the world.
In Kenya, the travelling telescope is doing a commendable job in advancing the idea of celestial safaris. The project seeks to encourage people from all walks of life to have a look through a telescope and learn about the night sky. They have been able to organize several informal star gazing events that target different demographics as well as institutions. Some of these events have been held at Ngong Hills and Brookhouse School, among other places. The one I found most interesting was a celestial safari to the Maasai Mara that they organized in August 2014. Participants got the best of both worlds as they visited the world famous park that has lots of wild animals and some of the best night skies in the country. Check out their Facebook page for some awesome astronomy photos from their events.
Kenya could do worse than market herself as an astro-tourism destination. This would add to the profile of the country where we can market celestial safaris as an added advantage of visiting our game parks. The fact that Kenya is located along the equator means we have good views of both Northern and Southern Hemisphere skies, something the likes of Namibia can’t boast. Food for thought for our tourism players. In the meantime, make the most of backyard astronomy and view some of the planets and stars that are visible form this part of the world at this time of the year.
(Header image c/o en.wallpapers-3d.ru)