Stargazing In My Country

by Karabo Rantwane

As said in the words of Galileo Galilei: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” These words are a precise definition of my upbringing. Every night in my small village of Taung, in the North West, I would go out around 6pm and set my eyes to the heavens and gaze up at what I thought were “stars”.

Little did I know that among those stars were planets, galaxies, asteroids, planetary nebulas and many more. I remember during one of those faithful nights, 6 August 2015, I looked up and saw showers of what, at that time, I thought were “shooting stars”. I took a personal decision that I want to learn what those things were, what made them move like that and why they disintegrated after a while, and where they disintegrated into.

Stargazing in my country, South Africa My name is Karabo Rantwane. I am 19 years old and am a physics and astrophysics undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town. I am currently doing my second year in the department.

As mentioned in my introductory paragraph, I have been stargazing for a while since the days I was introduced to the subject of astronomy. Stargazing in South Africa is a big thing, in particular my village of Taung, where there is little light pollution relative to other parts of the country.

It is this advantage that I took to look up and see funny patterns that stars made. Of course, we do not have professional instruments like telescopes or binoculars or a professional building like an observatory to conduct stargazing, such as the SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory) in Cape Town or the SALT (South African Large Telescope) in Sutherland, but I am grateful for my own pair of lenses or binoculars which are my eyes. To make it even better, conditions are just right here in my village to allow for the splendour of the universe to show up, bragging in awe right in front of my eyes.

The biggest thing I appreciate about my community is that it is set at a latitude and longitude that allows me to appreciate the sight of stars that have a declination of approximately -630 to -900, which are always visible from my community throughout the year. Those with a declination of -620 to +620 are visible during other parts of the year. All the ones I am about to mention can be seen with the naked eye during a clear, dark night.

These include famous ones such as the Southern Cross (always visible from my community). For people in my community, they used this constellation when it was at its highest point in the sky to mark the start of the rainy season. The Zulus were rather sophisticated in their view of the Southern Cross as they used it as a map to find their way inland. For the Constellation of Orion (visible during the period from December to March in Taung ), it is the most well-known in the tribe of the Sotho people, with the rise of this constellation attributed to good omen. When it appears in the sky, they declare that something good is going to happen.

The other constellation visible in my country during the same period as the Orion Constellation is the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters). For the Tswana people in my community, the appearance of this Constellation marked what they called Selemo, which translates to Summer. 

This constellation is just as famous as the Orion Constellation for people in my community as my elders claim that they used the appearance of this constellation to mark the right time of the year for agricultural purposes. For the Zulu people in the KwaZulu-Natal, the Pleiades also marked the beginning of a new year and for the Tswana people, the start of agricultural season, where they had to plough.

Other famous stars are seen in my community during different parts of the year, including the brightest stars in our night sky, Sirius. Also found in the Constellation of Orion is Betelgeuse, which is set to explode when it reaches the end of its life in the near future, meaning it will provide a beautiful sight to see for people in South Africa, as well as Proxima Centauri, which is the closest star to us other than the sun at 4.2 light years away.

To brag a little, there is a constellation named after our beautiful Table Mountain called Mensa. What is special about this constellation is that it is the only one named after a real geographic feature on Earth and we have Table Mountain to thank for. This constellation is also a beautiful sight to see from the night sky of South Africa.

Planetary Nebulas, such as Orion Nebula can also be seen during a clear, dark night from my country. As mentioned earlier, not only do the heavens provide sight to stars, but also planets. Therefore, well-known planets in our solar system can be seen in my community, such as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars (visible during December) and Venus, the most famous planet in my country, due to its brightness. For people in my community, they call it with different names such as Mphatlhalatsane and Naledi ya Moso which all attribute to Venus being the brightest celestial object in our night sky and being the first one to rise as dusk, and the last one to set at dawn. I was taken by storm when I heard people in my church singing about it. This is just clear evidence that in my country, we are People of the Sky. 

Also, for the Zulu people, they did not see Venus as the same celestial object, calling it the Evening Star (Isicelankolobe) and Morning Star and recognised these as the wives of the Moon. They believed that the Evening Star feeds the Moon badly, resulting in the Moon becoming thinner while the Morning Star feeds the Moon well, resulting in it becoming bigger.

Last but not least, I would like to mention that I like living in a universe that is big. Therefore, I like to mention that the Band of the Milky Way Galaxy can be seen from my village on a clear, dark night. This is the whole disk of the Milky Way Galaxy unfolding right in front of our eyes. 

For me, this is the most beautiful sight I can have from stargazing in my community, only because of the compactness of stars, planets, asteroids, and planetary nebulas and dust, which are light years apart, but all seem so close to each other when observed from here. I am therefore intrigued by this splendour of beauty and knowing that I am part of such vastness of the cosmic sea, to which only my eyes can extend to see, I dream to know what lies beyond that horizon.

In conclusion, my country offers a wide variety of celestial objects to see on different nights of the year during a stargazing session. The ones I mentioned is only a fraction of the things to see. I am convinced that my country, and in particular, Taung, would make a very good site for astronomical observations and research. Taking into consideration the weather, latitude, altitude and pollution from light and smoke, it provides just the right conditions to soak in the beauty that the universe has to offer.

For me, studying astrophysics and learning about the things I mentioned, just fuels that desire to want to utilise what stargazing in my community has to offer, and not just for me to enjoy it, but to impart this knowledge of the cosmos to others in the community so that when they hold their heads high and point to any part of the sky, that they may know what they are pointing to and feel the fire in them as I do because, truth be said, the Universe Belongs To Us All.