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Chasing stars in Bishan

From the rooftop of an HDB carpark, this astronomy buff has his sights on space

Star light, star bright, astronomy enthusiast Ethan Chong has been able to fulfil his wish all right.

For the past three years, the 21-year-old has observed the cosmos, taking in clear views of various constellations, never mind the light-polluted sky over Singapore and a limited budget.

Armed with an enthusiasm that often sees him stargazing for hours, the third-year digital and precision engineering student at Nanyang Polytechnic has caught great views of the planets in the solar system, including Jupiter, Mars and Saturn.

Mr Chong has two telescopes - an Orion and a William Optics - for which he paid $1,600 in total.

But his other equipment are innovative and budget-friendly.

Instead of using an expensive electronic dry box to store and carry his equipment, he uses a plastic container measuring 80cm by 60cm with a Thirsty Hippo dehumidifier to keep his equipment safe from mould.

And instead of splurging on a lens hood, he blocks stray light - which would hinder his views - from entering his telescopic lens by folding a piece of Styrofoam around the lens.

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I don't see light pollution as a handicap. I see it as a challenge to be overcome.

MR ETHAN CHONG, on tackling Singapore's high level of light pollution.

He also uses black foam paper to cover the lights on the top floor of his stargazing spot - a multi-storey carpark near his Bishan Street 22 Housing Board flat - to make it more conducive for watching the stars. He removes the paper after his stargazing is done.

Mr Chong fell in love with astronomy after a trip to Bintan with his poly's astronomy club three years ago. He had the opportunity to use a telescope for the first time and managed to catch a clear view of Saturn.

With his savings, he bought two telescopes and met other astronomy enthusiasts in Singapore to learn more.

Mr Ethan Chong looking through his telescope on a clear night. Mr Chong has two telescopes - an Orion and a William Optics - for which he paid $1,600 in total. He fell in love with astronomy after a trip to Bintan with Nanyang Polytechnic's astronomy
He stores his equipment in a do-it-yourself plastic dry box, which he pushes around on a small trolley. ST PHOTO: JEREMY KWAN

Nowadays, he prefers gazing at the stars alone. He takes about 15 to 20 minutes to prepare his telescope for each stargazing session, which lasts between three and four hours.

In 2016, Singapore was named the country with the worst level of light pollution in the world, in a study published by scientific journal Science Advances.

"The possibility of seeing the Milky Way from home is precluded to all of Singapore," the study said.

Mr Ethan Chong looking through his telescope on a clear night. Mr Chong has two telescopes - an Orion and a William Optics - for which he paid $1,600 in total. He fell in love with astronomy after a trip to Bintan with Nanyang Polytechnic's astronomy
(From far left) Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon and Mars, as seen through Mr Chong's telescope. ST PHOTO: JEREMY KWAN

But with his clever innovations, Mr Chong has found a way around the problem. "I don't see light pollution as a handicap. I see it as a challenge to be overcome," he said.

He also said he has been approached by the police but after explaining himself, they often end up intrigued with his activities and will sometimes sneak a peek through his telescope.

Mr Chong hopes to travel to different continents one day to further his stargazing adventure, but for now, he will continue pursuing his passion from his Bishan carpark observatory.

Mr Ethan Chong looking through his telescope on a clear night. Mr Chong has two telescopes - an Orion and a William Optics - for which he paid $1,600 in total. He fell in love with astronomy after a trip to Bintan with Nanyang Polytechnic's astronomy
Mr Ethan Chong looking through his telescope on a clear night. Mr Chong has two telescopes - an Orion and a William Optics - for which he paid $1,600 in total. He fell in love with astronomy after a trip to Bintan with Nanyang Polytechnic's astronomy club three years ago. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ETHAN CHONG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2019, with the headline 'Chasing stars in Bishan'. Print Edition | Subscribe