Starry-eyed on the sidewalk: Planet-watching from the streets of Singapore

Astronomy buffs are winning more hobbyists by setting up telescopes on the streets for the public to planet-watch

On a typical Saturday evening in Orchard Road, a man dressed casually in a polo T-shirt and shorts is attracting curious stares.

At the entrance of chi-chi Mandarin Gallery, Mr Richard Low, 45, has set up a telescope pointing towards the sky. While looking through it, he is fielding questions from onlookers.

In Singapore, a growing number of enthusiasts like him are taking stargazing out onto the streets.

The activity, called sidewalk astronomy, makes planet-watching accessible and can be traced back to renowned American amateur astronomer John Dobson, who co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers in the late 1960s.

Mr Remus Chua, co-founder of SingAstro, an online forum for the astronomy community in Singapore, puts the number of sidewalk stargazers here at around 300. His forum has close to 2,000 registered members.

Overall, the 39-year-old thinks there are at least triple the number of astronomy buffs here compared to 10 years ago.

They may belong to at least three community groups, including The Astronomical Society of Singapore and Marine Parade Astronomical Society, as well as informal sidewalk stargazing groups such as Singapore Sidewalk Astronomy and Stargazing Singapore. There are at least 15 astronomy clubs in secondary schools and tertiary institutions.

Mr Low, a consultant project manager by day, says he likes pursuing his hobby outdoors to share his passion with others.

He says: "Many Singaporeans think that there is nothing to see in the sky apart from the moon and a few stars but, actually, there is a huge variety of interesting celestial objects visible through binoculars or telescopes."

Sidewalk astronomers frequent at least 10 locations, ranging from open spaces such as Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park to residential neighbourhoods such as Toa Payoh, Clementi and Sengkang, where sessions are organised in open areas between HDB blocks. These are open to participants of all ages and are free of charge.

Those who prefer the indoors can go to the observatory at the Science Centre Singapore, where admission is free, or the observatory at Woodlands Galaxy Community Club for a fee of $1.

But it is the sidewalks which are buzzing. Either solo or in groups, astronomy buffs are lugging their telescopes of varying sizes and types to all four corners of Singapore, putting to rest misconceptions that stargazing is a no-go here because of light-polluted skies (from excessive artificial sources such as street lighting) and the many high-rise buildings.

They publicise these sessions online via social media, astronomy forums or blogs. Although they may announce the date up to a month in advance, cancellations are common due to the unpredictability of weather conditions.

The number of such informal gatherings has mushroomed in the past three years, says Mr Gary Chee. The freelance IT consultant, 41, started his sidewalk stargazing sessions at the light-polluted open grounds outside Toa Payoh Public Library in 2010, shortly after purchasing his first telescope.

He says: "I used to get a lot of dirty looks when I first started and I wasn't sure if the police might be called to check on me. But eventually, people came to recognise me and the crowds grew."

From a handful of people making the first move to approach him, the numbers have risen to more than 100 on weekends.

Mr Cheenow holds monthly stargazing gettogethers outside the library and conducts talks before each session on everything from how to read star charts and appreciating the myths behind the constellations to how to choose a suitable telescope or a pair of binoculars.

In 2012, he and five fellow enthusiasts launched Singapore Sidewalk Astronomy, which organises informal monthly stargazing sessions at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.

Another group, Stargazing Singapore, was started early last year by Ms Gerarddyn A. Dde Britto.

From being a lone ranger holding monthly sidewalk stargazing sessions in her housing estate of Ang Mo Kio, she has since been joined by four like-minded aficionados just as keen to spread the awareness in their own neighbourhoods. They hold gatherings in seven areas including West Coast Park, Sengkang and the Botanic Gardens.

Ms Dde Britto, who is in her early 40s and has gone back to school to do a degree in business management, says: "The aim is to dispel myths that only certain areas in Singapore are suitable for stargazing and that you can't see much. You can, in fact, see planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, meteor showers and even comets."

Over at Science Centre Singapore's observatory, annual visitorship has been rising steadily from 6,000 three years ago to more than 8,000 last year.

The centre also conducts sidewalk astronomy sessions on an ad-hoc basis to reach out to those unable to travel to the observatory in Jurong East.

A spokesman says that these sessions have been "incredibly popular, with long queues often forming behind the telescopes". The number of participants can range from 200 to 1,000 in a two-hour period, which is the typical duration of a session.

He attributes the interest in astronomy to "the resurgence of efforts in space exploration. The next decade will be an exciting one for space enthusiasts - who knows, booking a space flight in the future might be as simple as booking an airline ticket".

More signs of a fascination with the stars: In January, close to 1,500 people congregated at the open field beside the East Coast Food Village at East Coast Park to catch a glimpse of the rare Comet Lovejoy. 

A total of 47 telescopes were set up at the event. Mr Chua, who organised the event, believes it to be one of the largest gatherings of telescope-wielding astronomy buffs here.

Mr Low participated in the event, bringing a 22-inch one-of-a-kind telescope designed by himself, which proved to be the most popular telescope of the night drawing the longest queue.

A geospatial consultant who helps to create geographic information systems, Mr Chua attributes the rising interest in astronomy to growing affluence and easier access to information online. He notes that a decent telescope can cost less than $1,000.

As a result, more people who attend the events come armed with basic knowledge on the subject, says Mr Chua. "They no longer just ask, 'Are there UFOs?' But instead, 'What is the possibility of an asteroid collision occurring here?'" He organises three to four sidewalk stargazing sessions annually at areas such as East Coast Park.

Solar gazing is another activity that is gaining steam here. More cosmic fanatics are being lured by the dynamicism of the sun's visible surface, or its photosphere.

Mr Dave Ng, 27, is one such enthusiast who has been admiring the sun since 2013 using a hydrogen- alpha solar telescope or a telescope with a white- light solar filter attached. This filter protects the eyes from the strong rays of the sun. He also conducts solar gazing sessions with the Singapore Sidewalk Astronomy group once every two to three months, either in the late morning or before sunset.

He cautions that one should never look directly at the sun or use a basic telescope or binoculars.

Fans can be as young as seven-year-old Cavan Ang. For him, looking through a telescope to see Jupiter at Mr Low's sidewalk session in Orchard Road last Saturday was a dream come true.

He was out shopping with his parents and younger brother when they chanced upon Mr Low and his telescope.

His mother, customer service executive Anna Teo, 37, says her son has been obsessed with astronomy since stumbling on a YouTube video on the solar system last year.

For Cavan, using the telescope was "an amazing experience to look at the planets and stars", so much so that he kept requesting to have another go at gazing through the telescope.

"It's even cooler than watching cartoons or playing games," he declares.

gurveenk@sph.com.sg