Kodaikanal Solar Observatory: Unravelling the mystery of Sun

The foggy hill station, Kodaikanal that smells of coffee, eucalyptus and chocolates is relaxing, intimate and cozy. It is tucked in Palani Hills away from the hustle bustle of the world and is rightly called 'The Gift of the Forest'.

Its beautiful, curvaceous roads are response to the terrain and the geology of the area. Home to 20 odd villages, forest, homemade chocolates, wooden houses, cafes and warm people; Kodaikanal is old and charming. There are so many places in and around Kodaikanal that can keep you busy getting stress-free. 

With star-shaped Kodai lake in the center of the city there are many things to see, experience and enjoy on your little holiday around it. While there are a few places like Mannavanur, Berijam, Pillar Peaks and Poombarai which are little far away but a delight for your soul.



Then there is another gem just four km from the main town of Kodaikanal, the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory (KSO) which is situated at an altitude of 2343 m. This Solar Observatory of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics was established in 1899 as a Solar Physics Observatory when all the activities were shifted from Madras Observatory. Madras Observatory was initially a private one initiated by William Petrie, an officer in East India Company in the year 1786 but was later passed on to the Government of India and hence the name Madras Observatory. It was Professor Charles Michie Smith who had undertaken the enormous task of setting up a dedicated Solar Observatory in Kodaikanal.

With more than 200 years of history, the Observatory is devoted to research in astronomy and astrophysics. So much science on the southern tip of the lovely Kodaikanal was heart-warming. It was a beautiful encounter which I discovered while I was exploring Kodaikanal.

Credit: Tamil Nadu Tourism

As I entered the premises, I noticed nothing but trees. After signing the entry log book and getting security checked, I started climbing up towards the Observatory. It was like a nature trail with so many and different type of trees throughout the path, bird’s chirping and the jungle sound like a background score in a movie, it was so beautiful. I could see the dome of Solar Tower Tunnel Telescope up high but that is not where our path was leading us to. We were going to visit only the museum because for a visit to Solar Tower Tunnel Telescope a prior permission is required, we were told.

Credit: Kodaikanal Solar Observatory

As I entered the Astronomy Museum, I saw beautiful models and pictures of the Solar System, Solar Pictures along with the handwritten history of the Observatory and the pictures of collaborators and scientists hanging on the white walls of the gallery, it was fascinating. I felt like a kid again attending a school science fair. The colours of our solar system against the white wall and the models on the wooden table was pleasing to my mind which is so fixated on science and fiction genre. I was having the time of my life.

Credit: Activity Educator

Kodaikanal Solar Observatory

KSO is helping Scientists unravel the mystery of our Sun. Sun’s behaviour is being captured here for almost a century now. Solar Pictures and data dates back to early 1900s and this data is being captured every single day. When in 1909, John Evershed made an outstanding discovery on Sunspots, it put this observatory on the world map and the effect which was learnt was then named Evershed Effect. It is since then, the sunspots are being observed here and captured digitally over 100 years now.

Credit: Evershed Effect

The team at the Observatory consists of two Scientists and nineteen technicians (information as of January 2019) who along with their equipment like high frequency Doppler which measures wave motion phenomenon (Doppler Effect), a broadband seismograph to detect seismic waves emerging from the Earth, a Watson magnetometer and the solar tunnel telescope have been observing and collecting data, dissecting the mystery that is Sun.

Credit: Tripinvites
Every day a fresh plate is being mounted on the telescope to capture the disc of the sun, the plate is then sent to the development lab where the negatives are being developed using several fixation techniques. This physical data is stored in Archives section of the Observatory which is maintained at a set temperature and has zero humidity. Now, this data is also being digitized to study the finer details of the Sun e.g. the weather pattern up there. This digitization is a sophisticated process and involves the temperature as low as -100 deg. C. More than 100 years of such data which is still continued to be collected makes Kodaikanal Observatory a huge data bank and one of a kind.

Arguably, Kodaikanal Solar Observatory also boasts to have the longest and most uniform multiple wavelength observations of the Sun of past 100 years and it still continues with the same old optical system maintained by them for such observations to avoid any kind of non-compatibility of data while taking the output. However, the new telescope at top of the Solar Tower tunnel takes the digitized images directly. The telescope has three mirrors in its complete ensemble which diverts the sunlight to 60 m underground tunnel which passes through a set of lenses which forms the 34 cm disc image of our Sun. The science, fundamental and the process is scintillating. I was bowled over just by getting to know about it, practical aspect of it must be so out of the world experience.

The Carrington maps of 100 years and the hydrogen alpha data which gives the solar cycle and solar activity details have also been maintained here and is continued to be observed which in turn helps Scientists predict the next century's Solar Cycle activities.


My Experience

The highlight of this museum is the live solar image and Fraunhofer spectrum (sun's visible colourful spectrum) which are on display on the small screed embedded to the white wall in the gallery. Visitors, if interested, can even look for sunspots through the model telescope kept in the museum using the mirror disc on which the image is shown as one cannot directly look through this telescope. I was lucky to see the Sunspot myself as spotting the same is totally dependent upon the Sun’s rotation. Alas! I couldn’t take any pictures or video of my experience as camera and mobiles are not allowed inside the premises. Although, the staff is more than happy and courteous to show the visitors through the museum and explain the phenomena if they are interested. I, in fact had a good ten minutes discussion with one of the staff members who not only explained me what they do there but also helped me spot the Sunspot.

[You can check out more details about Kodaikanal Solar Observatory here - https://www.iiap.res.in/kodai.htm]

The museum also has a separate section with many presentations on our solar system, pictorial as well as AV. One of the audio - visual presentations was from NASA itself, it was very funny and reminded me of the quirky video presentation by the 2012 movie character Charlie Frost who has played the role of a fringe science conspiracy theorist and radio talk-show host. One of the AV I found on YouTube is shared here for visual appeal.

Kodaikanal Solar Observatory - Evershed effect

There is also a 20 cm refractor at the Observatory which is used for cometary and occultation observations which is sometimes open to visitors for night sky viewing. KSO's Library is an intricate part of the Museum and the members of the Observatory take pride in it as it houses Astronomical Literature Books and observation records dating back to 1794. It also has a unique book shelf arrangement which goes up to the ceiling.

This wooden, white and brown architecture was a lovely experience and is a paradise for science lover who is also bit by travel bug.

Additional Information

Young students can also apply for internship program which is conducted by Indian Institute of Astrophysics with the aim to promote interest in the field of science and research among young students.

The Observatory is open to public from 1st April to 15th June between 10:00 hrs to 12:00 hrs and 14:00 hrs to 16:00 hrs while only on Fridays between 10:00 hrs to 12:00 hrs for rest of the year. Entry is free.

Enjoy your trip.
Yours truly,

Me and My Suitcase

Note:
Cameras are not allowed inside, so I could not take any pictures inside. All the pictures except the one of entry gate are taken from the internet. All the technical information is taken from the pamphlet provided to me by KSO and from the internet.

Comments

  1. Just relived the time I spent there.. nicely written n this makes me want to go there soon again :)

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    Replies
    1. Glad you liked it. I hope you can take your little munchkin along to the observatory. It'll be so much fun for him.

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  2. I didn't know about this observatory here. Thanks for sharing Stuti. Will have to plan my second visit to Kodai just for this experience

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  3. Nice. Would like to be there someday

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