When will Pakistanis reach for the stars?

Courtesy our highly politicized electronic media, Pakistanis are well aware of everything that goes on in the parliament - but do they know what is happening in the universe? It is about time they made an effort to find out, writes Saima Baig

When I was young I had the privilege to watch 'Cosmos: A Personal Voyage', a programme hosted and co-written by Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist and astronomer.  The 13 part series highlighted the-then current information of the universe and our place in it, and also gave information about two space probes called Voyager 1 and 2, which had been sent out to visit our solar system and to go beyond. I loved the show and its accompanying book 'Cosmos', also written by Sagan.

This was back in the good old days of PTV, the days when we had only one channel. But people like me got to watch programmes like 'Cosmos' and become interested in science. This has changed. In the hideous plethora of current TV channels in Pakistan, I do not think a programme similar to Cosmos has ever been shown.

But, today I am not going to talk about the monstrosity that is our news and entertainment media. I am going to talk about science; especially, astronomy. Because, while it is sad that our television shows cannot also be a source of information for us, it is sadder that in this digital age, very few of us are even interested in finding out the information ourselves.

Last year, for example, the European Space Agency (ESA) did something that had never been done before. It launched a space probe called Rosetta in 2004, to orbit a comet. It did this in 2014 when it started orbiting comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Most interestingly, Rosetta also had a Lander called Philae, which was to land on the comet and send back data. The comet was landed, and it did send back data in the next two or so days for which its batteries were active. Philae is now in sleep mode because it landed on a part of the comet that did not receive direct sunlight in order to charge its batteries. All of us who were interested in this, saw the live coverage on the ESA website. Because it was easily available. And all of us felt involved and a part of the scientific community that had made this possible. And we still are, while we wait for the comet to turn around and expose Philae to the sun so that its batteries can be recharged. All of this can be seen here: http://rosetta.esa.int/.

Another spacecraft – this time NASA’s Dawn – has recently reached and has been orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, which is located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and is constantly sending back data, which is being enthusiastically analyzed and can be accessed here: http://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/.

These are just two of the examples of what has been going on in the world of astronomy and astrophysics, very recently. Unfortunately, this was not reported in any of the news channels, which were busy bringing on astrologists in order tell people about their future.

But all this and other information is available on NASA and ESA’s websites (as well as those of other space agencies). Go and look. Because these are amazing milestones that all humanity should be a part of.

In July this year, NASA’s space probe New Horizon is expected to reach the Kuiper Belt, where it will study the dwarf planet Pluto and some others. Just two days ago the first ever coloured pictures of Pluto were sent back by New Horizon. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/newhorizons/main/.

I, for one, am very excited at the prospect of looking up and increasing our understanding of the cosmos. And the good news is that in Karachi there is an urban space observatory run by members of Pakistan Amateur Astronomers' Society.  Their information can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/kaastrodome?fref=nf.  One of their members Ramiz Qureshi is going to conduct a workshop on astrophotography https://www.facebook.com/events/873951305997927/ on April 25 at the observatory. How can this not be exciting for all of us?

The point of all of this is that it is good to take time away from politics and indulge in furthering our education about science and specifically about the universe.  Because this is important and this is the reason that other countries have gone far beyond us in so many ways (pun totally intended).

Cosmos was remade and updated in 2014 and was hosted by another astronomer and science communicator Neil Degrasse Tyson. It was as great as the first one and it is definitely worth a watch. Neil Degrasse Tyson also podcasts a show call Star Talk Live http://www.startalkradio.net/. And I am going to sign off with his catchphrase on the show: "Keep looking up."

Saima Baig

Saima Baig is a Karachi-based environmental economist, climate change consultant and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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