Stargazing in Joburg: it’s possible

Depending on the season, and if it is a clear evening, you can see various globular and open clusters, planets, gas clouds and sometimes even a galaxy.

With high-aperture telescopes it is possible to see the Orion Nebula, one of the brightest nebulae that is visible to the naked eye in the night sky.
(Images: Nasa)

Maropeng in the Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site hosts regular stargazing evenings, led by Maropeng’s resident astronomer Vincent Nettmann
(Image: Maropeng)

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South Africa is fast gaining a reputation as a leading stargazing destination, but the stars don’t come out just for people in the country’s most remote areas. Just outside Johannesburg in Gauteng it is possible to see some of the most beautiful objects in the sky, without travelling too far out of the city.

Maropeng in the Cradle of Human Kind World Heritage Site hosts regular stargazing evenings, led by Maropeng’s resident astronomer Vincent Nettmann. Here the public can view some of the southern sky’s most spectacular objects.

This event includes welcome drinks at the Maropeng Boutique Hotel, a delicious three-course dinner and a 45-minute presentation about space accompanied by beautiful photographs taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. Then Nettmann and his assistants take visitors on a laser-guided tour of the sky, and you can view these objects through large-range aperture telescopes.

Guests are also able to combine the event with an overnight stay at the Maropeng Boutique Hotel.

Nettmann says astronomy enthusiasts who live in the city will be surprised how much they can see with the help of high-aperture telescopes.

“You don’t need perfect conditions to see amazing stars. As long as you are not under a street light, and there is not much light pollution, you can still see reasonably well and can even view some of brightest objects in the sky,” he says.

Depending on the season, and if it is a clear evening, you can see various globular and open clusters, planets, gas clouds and sometimes even a galaxy.

This is the beauty of stargazing – there is always something new to see depending on what time of the year you are looking into the skies.

On a clear late summer evening it is possible to view the planet Jupiter and the four Galilean moons; they are the largest of the many moons of Jupiter and among the most massive objects in the solar system apart from the sun.

With the help of a telescope you can also see the Orion Nebula, one of the brightest nebulae that is visible to the naked eye in the night sky; the jewel box star cluster, one of the youngest known with an estimated age of only 14-million years; and Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus. The blockbuster movie Avatar is set on a fictional planet, “Pandora”, which is supposed to be orbiting this star.

Southern hemisphere is best for stars

According to the World Travel Market (WTM) Global Trends Report for 2010, space and astronomy tourism is one of the significant growth areas for the local tourism market.

Nettmann says even though it took some time for stargazing to be recognised by the tourism industry, the astrotourism sector is growing.

He says South Africans are privileged to live in a country that has such beautiful stars – the WTM report says 50% of the world’s population can no longer see stars, and this is worsening as more areas receive electricity.

“In the southern hemisphere there are two-thirds more stars than in the northern hemisphere – it’s just the way nature is,” Nettmann says.

And it is also easier to view them here as there is less air and light pollution in the southern hemisphere, in comparison with big cities in Europe and America.

“When someone from the northern hemisphere comes to South Africa and see our stars they can’t believe it. We take it for granted, but people are blown away by our southern skies,” he says.

Accessible astronomy

Nettmann has a different approach to telling people about science – he brings the subject alive with beautiful photographs, interesting facts, animations, descriptions and a good dose of humour.

Throughout the talk he does more than just help people to identify stars. “I try to inspire them to ask questions, notice things around them and look at the world with new eyes,” he says.

Nettmann says it is important to make science accessible. “I like to bring it down to a human level because this is what people find interesting,” he says.

“I can tell you how far the moon is away from the earth, but it will mean more if I tell you it will take you four months and 10 days to get there if you go by car at 120km/hour.”

He also steers away from rattling off large numbers, unless he can use illustrations to give people an idea of what it all means.

“Instead of just saying there are 100-billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy, I will tell you that there are more brain connections in a human being than stars in the Milky Way. This is such an amazing thought,” he says.

As a child Nettmann was captivated by the idea of mapping out the moon and stars. At the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing, he looked through the scope of a pellet gun to try to spot the first men on the moon.

He remembers listening to the radio broadcast of the first moon landing. “It was a defining moment in my life. We didn’t have television in South Africa then, but I listened to it with awe,” he says.

Spurred on by his interest in telescopes and lenses, Nettmann found his way into working with optics as a technician. But he never lost his enthusiasm for astronomy, and now works in the field fulltime, presenting stargazing talks, training guides and inspiring other people to take a greater interest in all things celestial.

“Ten years ago astronomy was unheard of in tourism – it was something reserved only for academics,” he says. But now stargazing safaris are becoming strong competition for the traditional bush safari.

He says the Square Kilometre Array project is helping to generate interest in space and astronomy, but he says the subject doesn’t generate as much publicity as it should.

“It means a great deal to the country, not only in terms of science, but also the economy,” he says, adding that the 30-year-project will have a significant impact on job creation and the establishment of entirely new support industries.

“It will be fantastic for the country in so many ways.”

But, even more than this, he thinks people want to get out into nature to do something different.

This is exactly what stargazing offers.

Maropeng’s next stargazing event takes place on 6 April. Visit www.maropeng.co.za to book.