Next time you are in Uttarakhand, look up Starscapes, India’s only chain of astronomical observatories that lets you have a date with the night sky. Paul Savio, Co-Founder and CEO of the venture talks about the inception, offerings, and future plans of this unique endeavour. By Rajlakshmi Dastidar
Paul Savio: Starscapes was born out of a passion project that started in 2015. Ramashish Ray, who is the founder, had a cottage in Kausani, Uttarakhand, which had a telescope. Tourists and guests enjoyed the dark skies there. This led to us setting up a small observatory at Kausani with ticketed shows. Initially, none of those who came to the observatory came looking for an astro-tourist experience – they just happened to discover it when in Kausani. But the responses of those who did visit us ranged from a wholesome delightful session to being quite overwhelmed by it all. This was the primary insight we gathered – there’s a huge base of tourists who delight in finding new experiences wherever they go, especially linked to nature. While there’s plenty of avenues to discover wildlife, mountains and oceans, there isn’t much for those who would enjoy exploring the skies. And more significantly, most people don’t know that they would enjoy this experience till they go through it.
Our goal was to create a platform for such people, who can get to experience something new, and find a unique connect with nature, while satiating their curiosity about the cosmos.
Paul Savio: While the experience started in 2015, it became a business around 2017, known as Stargate Observatories (now called Starscapes). For the next three years, we experimented with various products, some of which became a staple offering. We conducted astro-tours to Spiti Valley and Narkanda, conducted astrophotography workshops at our observatory in Kausani and other remote dark sky locations like the Sandhan Valley in Maharashtra, and held multiple school and college workshops. During the annular solar eclipse in 2019, we conducted an online photography contest which saw participation from places like Sri Lanka and the Middle East. However, we had to cease operations in 2020 as tourism dropped to zero. Over the last two years, we focused on rebuilding the company base-up, with a focus on going to the customer with a value proposition comprising varied experiences related to astronomy. We rebranded as Starscapes Experiences in 2021, and opened up observatories in Bhimtal and Jaipur. (We have also partnered with Club Mahindra, currently at their property in Madikeri (Coorg).) In December 2021, we partnered with the Government of Uttarakhand in conducting an Astro Party at Benital Astro Village, a location designated to become India’s first astro-tourism spot.
Paul Savio: Starscapes has observatories in Kausani and Bhimtal in Uttarakhand. We have recently launched a mobile observatory in Jaipur.
By May 2022, we plan to launch observatories in Coorg and Ooty. By the end of the year, we plan to have operations at Munnar, Pondicherry, Shimla and Goa.
Our locations are all tourist spots, chosen based on light pollution (darkness of the sky), weather (number of cloudless days) and accessibility (how well connected the place is). Since our objective is to reach out to casual astronomy enthusiasts, we find it is critical to our business model to be present at locations which are a drive away from big towns. The locations we finalise have fairly dark skies, measuring four or lesser on the Bortle Scale (a measure of night-sky darkness, one being extreme remote locations and nine being inner cities). The locations are also importantly tourist spots, since novel experiences are sought out and best enjoyed by tourists.
Paul Savio: Our business is designed to reach out to people looking for new experiences, and not just those who seek out astronomy experiences. Thus, we aim to introduce many people to this field.
Our offerings have a particular inclination towards younger audiences. Rocket-building, modelling a sundial, and many other activities get children to experientially understand things that are normally taught theoretically in school. Our observatory shows too are structured as discussions, and not as lectures. And children don’t hesitate in asking questions, without any fear of sounding inane. This always increases the entire group’s engagement and enthusiasm.
Children lead the conversation today, and set the trend for tomorrow. Helping them experience the universe and the science that goes into exploring it, in a fun way, will help grow their interest in astronomy. Their friends, parents, and eventually the rest of society will follow.
Paul Savio: Ironically, the act of physically setting up the observatory is the easy part. Once the location is finalised based on light pollution (dust pollution is usually inconsequential in places where light pollution is low) and weather, we need to identify a spot that has maximum visibility of the sky.
The difficult part is getting in place the team that conducts the shows. Our observatories are not just places where one can come and look at certain objects in the sky. There are detailed shows at set timings. You buy a ticket for a 45 minute show, during which our expert StarGuide takes you on a journey across the night sky, blending science, history and mythology into a thrilling storytelling session. You will learn to identify stars and constellations, and various other celestial objects. And then you would get to look at some of them through a state-of-the-art telescope, which the StarGuide undergoes over a month’s worth of training to be able to effectively use.
We are particular about choosing StarGuides from the vicinity of the observatory, thus lending a local flavour to our shows. Also, our StarGuides are primary conversationalists, and most of them do not have a science background. Since our shows are structured to be discussive, the guests feel like they’re having a fireside chat with an equal, and not attending a lecture from someone who is an expert. All our StarGuides have learnt how to conduct shows during their month-long induction, and constantly get refresher-training sessions from our team of trainers. Our very first StarGuide was a teacher at an ashram for girls in Kausani. With absolutely no knowledge of astronomy, he picked up everything on the job and is today a trainer of others. He incidentally still teaches at the ashram.
Herein lies our biggest challenge – identifying individuals living in the small towns or villages where our observatory is, selecting them for their skills in having conversations with guests and working with children, and training them on the subject about which they may possibly have no clue. By the end of the training, they will know how to operate telescopes, identify deep sky objects, read the sky with ease, conduct workshops for children, and click photos of celestial objects as well as any astrophotographer would. They are our biggest assets.
Paul Savio: Our offerings are primarily focused on getting you out of your home and becoming one with nature. Having said that, we do have some and soon will be ranging other services that can be accessible anytime anywhere. We conduct photography contests that can be participated in remotely. We will soon be bringing mobile observatories in towns, where we can put up a temporary setup at your condominium and conduct workshops and activities, along with a sky show through a telescope. And we’ll soon launch an online community where astronomy enthusiasts can avail services such as setting up your own backyard observatories, buying telescopes, planning astronomy themed parties, and many more.
Paul Savio: Starscapes will regularly host a number of engaging sessions related to stargazing. Some of the activities include
Paul Savio: It is possibly the first memory of stargazing I have, as a child in primary school. I had already learned to identify stars before this moment. On this day we were at a village in Kerala, and it was a clear summer sky. Having lived in a city all along, seeing so many stars in the sky was a novel experience. The sky was absolutely cloudless, except for one wispy trail. I mentioned this to my father who was also there with me, and his response was “that’s not a cloud. That’s the Milky Way”. Discovering in a flash that what I was staring at was not many droplets of water, but millions of stars, was a humbling experience like never before.
Paul Savio: The pandemic has certainly made people miss the outdoors. This has spurred travel in the interludes between the waves, and made people look for something new to do. Having said that, conversation around astronomy has been growing for the last 10 years. Space has been in the news for all the good reasons: ISRO has faced repeated successes and will soon be sending humans to space, NASA is going back to the Moon, and private players have entered space travel, bringing with them a fair amount of glamour. All these have piqued the interest of the rest of us into identifying and taking part in conversations related to astronomy.
Paul Savio: The star-studded skies over the Himalayan peaks at the Pangong Lake would definitely be among my favourite spots that I have visited. But if we would like to talk about accessible locations, Kausani (a small hill station 10 hours’ drive from Delhi) is a stellar location, in every sense of the word. Its altitude and remoteness yield clean air and dark skies, that make it a worthy location for idyllic stargazing. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Madikeri in Coorg (just six hours from Bengaluru) has a brilliant night sky. In fact, it falls in the same Bortle Scale class as Kausani.
Paul Savio: Two events I am really looking forward to in the next couple of years are incidentally two that I have wanted to experience ever since I was a child. The first is to be at the beach at Sri Harikota, when Gaganyaan – III lifts off with the first completely Indian space crew ever. It is expected to happen by August 2023. The second will be to visit the USA and experience first-hand the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. This will be the next total solar eclipse over easily accessible land (there’s one in 2023 over Papua and a few other islands of Indonesia but getting there won’t be easy). This is especially significant considering that from India, the next total solar eclipse visible won’t be till March 2034 in Kashmir, and the one following that will be in June 2114!
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