Benital village, situated at an elevation of 2,600m in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, is set to become a stargazing hot spot. Chosen as an “astro village”, it will be equipped with large-scale telescopes and a night-vision dome. The aim is to generate interest in astronomy tourism.
Starscapes, a Bengaluru-based private astronomy startup, has helped the Uttarakhand government develop the masterplan. Paul Savio, its co-founder and CEO, says the startup is keen to work with other state governments to promote “astro tourism”.
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If tourism is their aim, other startups hope to promote interest in, and an understanding of, astronomy by setting up accessible labs, organising courses and projects. The private sector seems to be well and truly buying into this segment. The past few years have seen close to half-a-dozen startups begin work in the field.
Starscapes, which operates two observatories in India, is one of the few astronomy and space science-focused startups that are bringing the world of stars, planets and cosmos closer home—and they are going well beyond simple astronomy observations that were the hallmark of planetariums. One startup, Spark Astronomy, has set up interactive astronomy labs in remote areas, while others are building a collaborative community of science enthusiasts to learn more about astrophysics and cosmology, among other subjects, through guided projects, video modules and online courses.
Starscapes was set up in 2019 as an astronomy experience platform. But its roots can be traced back to 2015, when founder Ramashish Ray, an astronomy enthusiast, set up a telescope on his property in Kausani, Uttarakhand. At the time, the startup, known as Stargate, was operating only the observatory in Kausani. “It was essentially a passion project at that stage. But in two years the idea exploded. People from as far away as Nainital (in the same state) were coming down to Kausani to experience the observatory. We formally decided to make it into a business by 2019,” says Savio, an amateur astronomer who, like Ray, used to work in the telecom sector.
This October, Starscapes opened its second observatory, in Bhimtal, not too far from Nainital—since observatories have to be away from light and dust pollution, they are usually located at elevations, particularly hill stations.
Starscapes’ business model is linked with tourism, so the pandemic hit hard. “Everything came to a grinding halt,” says Savio. But by March 2022, they aim to launch observatories in Coorg, Karnatka and Ooty, Tamil Nadu, with state-of-the-art equipment for observations, astrophotography and research projects. “We are not in the business of astronomy education. It is more about tapping into astronomy as a hobby and an experience you can enjoy,” says Savio.
In the past, the startup has collaborated with schools and colleges across India to offer on-site experiential learning workshops on astronomy and astrophotography—students learn everything from making their own pin-hole cameras to building rocket models.
While covid-19 put a forceful brake on such collaborations, young enthusiasts have continued to flock to the two observatories that are open to everyone. A ticket for the night-sky show costs ?500, while solar observation shows cost ?150 per person. “A lot of the time, you don’t have much to do at hill stations and primary tourist locations after sunset. The idea with Starscapes is to offer something useful, exciting and entertaining that the whole family and children from all age groups can do after sunset,” adds Savio.
So far, the two observatories have hosted more than 40,000 customers. “There is a general buzz (around astronomy and space) that is only going to increase over the next few years. In 2024, the Artemis project will take place. India is going to space. It cannot get more real than that,” says Savio.
Astronomy for everyone
Aryan Mishra, 21, is a self-taught astronomer. The co-founder and director of Delhi-based startup Spark Astronomy, set up three years ago, says astronomy is a luxury not everyone can afford. His aim, then, is to make it accessible. “A phone is not a luxury any more… but a telescope is something not everyone has,” he says in a video call.
Apart from offering online classes and curriculum-based learning, Mishra’s startup has set up 60 astronomy labs in nine states, including Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Delhi. These house telescopes and working science models for children that cover an array of topics—from locating stars and craters on the Moon, to zodiac constellations and gravity in space. “I believe science should be equally accessible to everybody and taught in the regional languages. If people start learning something in their mother tongue, it’s more understandable,” says Mishra. “That’s the reason our labs run in multiple languages—Hindi, English, Marathi and Ladakhi as well.” Even villagers have attempted the experiments.
In September, they set up a lab in Mukundgarhi village, Sikandrabad, Uttar Pradesh. Sikandrabad is associated with the late Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, the first director general of the Council Of Scientific And Industrial Research. The lab offers 35 experiments with 18 working models, including a virtual reality room. By the end of November, Mishra hopes to set up 170 labs across the country, in states such as Sikkim, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. “These labs (each can cost up to ?4.75 lakh) are cost-effective and also budget-flexible. Private schools fund their own labs, while government schools get funding from the gram panchayats and government schemes,” explains Mishra, describing astronomy as a “humbling” science. “These labs (they set them up and run them) are more than just equipment. They won’t make a student an astronomer. But it will make them a better person. These astronomy labs are a chance for everyone to access science.”
Interest in astronomy is certainly growing, says Sitara Srinivasan, 24, founder and CEO of the Bengaluru-based startup Naxxatra, launched a little less than a year ago. The 15-member Naxxatra began as a community and collaborative platform for science enthusiasts but is now a community-based startup where people can explore different topics—from cosmology to data-driven and observational astronomy, relativity and astroparticle physics.
This is done through special courses, live-streaming lectures, video modules and guided projects. The courses and training cost less than ?4,000 and start from as little as ?1,500. “One of our most active members is a 65-year-old retired geologist with a passion for cosmology,” says Srinivasan on the phone. “It’s a great time for people to do astronomy. I interact with hundreds of students. The younger they are, somehow they are more knowledgeable…. There’s such a huge amount of popular science and science communication available right now that they are starting to grasp information very early.”
Srinivasan says the aim is to bring all science lovers into one ecosystem. That’s why their courses and modules are interactive and follow a project-driven approach. Last year, Naxxatra launched an online treasure hunt called Enigma, named after the cipher device used by the German military in World War II and the code-breaking work done by British mathematician Alan Turing.
The startup plans to release its next treasure hunt, Enigma 2.0, in December. Srinivasan says: “Today you can do radio astronomy or real observational astronomy from the comfort of your home and access open-source data. Science is opening up to the masses and that’s exciting.”
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