Stellar Horizons

07 September 2017

Langkawi National Observatory has stood at the top of Bukit Malut, almost defiantly a symbol of the sky not being the limit. 

Karzaman Ahmad has barely slept. It’s a stretch to feel anything but envy for him though, because he has one of the best jobs in the country: sitting alone in a tower on top of a hill, gazing upwards at the stars.

Karzaman peering out of the Stellar Observatory Dome.

Karzaman is an assistant science officer at Langkawi National Observatory for the National Space Agency (Angkasa). The observatory was built in 2005, when perhaps the coolest living Malaysian, Datuk Mazlan Othman, served as the director general. It was her idea that an observatory be built on Bukit Malut to encourage a love for astronomy.

The telescopes over Langkawi.

“It isn’t Angkasa that’s doing the research,” Karzaman says. “We only provide the facilities. Anyone who is interested in carrying out their own research – students, academics, members of the public – are welcome to use the telescopes.” The telescopes he’s referring to consist of the main RC telescope in the Stellar Observatory, and the five solar telescopes with different filters in the Solar Observatory. For the most part, it’s Karzaman operating the telescopes day and night; other times, external students or researchers use them.

Despite being built for the public, the observatory still remains relatively unknown to those not already occupied with stargazing. The moons and stars etched into the ground may lead like breadcrumbs to the observatory, but it’s nevertheless tucked away in a hilltop forest reserve, next to a guarded dam.

The dreamlike observatory is located at the top of Bukit Malut.

There’s a reason for that. Angkasa has to make stellar and solar observations round the clock. Daytime observation consists of monitoring solar activity, especially sunspots and flares. Stellar observation is largely carried out by or on behalf of researchers, and includes routine observations of visible objects, just in case that data is needed for future studies.

The main 20-inch RC telescope in the Stellar Observatory.

This means that aside from planned visits, and viewing parties for special events (like a partial lunar eclipse), random walk-ins from curious members of the public and tourists wanting to take a peek through the telescopes could be a little disruptive.

Prepping the solar telescopes.

More importantly, of course, is the need to have the observatory being kept as far away from human activity as possible. “Most observatories overseas are built on mountains or in the desert to limit interruption from manmade light. Although our observatory doesn’t really meet the basic height criteria of being above cloud level we are at least in a forest reserve – meaning that for the foreseeable future, there will be no development in a 1 to 2km radius,” Karzaman says.

“But with Kuah and Pantai Kok becoming more developed, the horizon will get brighter over time. This means that the degree of observable space will become smaller,” he adds. “If the naked eye can see up to a magnitude of 5, our telescopes can see up to a magnitude of 18. But over time, this will likely decrease to about 12.”

What does this actually mean? “With the naked eye looking through the telescope, we can see planets, and maybe one or two nebulae. Asteroids and comets are a little more difficult, but that depends on where they are, and how much light they’re reflecting. With really clear skies, and using CCD cameras with filters for non-visible light, we can see more nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies.”

The five telescopes mounted together in the Solar Observatory Dome.

It may not be likely that an earth-shattering discovery will be made at the observatory, but that was only ever going to be a bonus. The aim of the observatory was to create dreamers in a country that’s erred on the side of pragmatism for the most part, and it seems to be working. Not just with the growing number of local astronomy, astrophysics and Islamic astronomy students completing projects at the observatory, but also Angkasa staff taking the opportunity to co-author papers with researchers using its facilities.

Karzaman with Angkasa staff.

When Karzaman does manage to get some sleep, he can at least rest easy knowing that he’d have played some part in creating a future where the Datuk Mazlans and Nur Adlykas aren’t extraordinary statistical outliers, but the norm.

Address: Agensi Angkasa Negara, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Empangan Bukit Malut, 07000 Langkawi, Kedah (04 966 8870). Visits by appointment only. Learn more at observatory.angkasa.gov.my.

By Jason S Ganesan
Photos by Hizwan Hamid

off the beat

Art Bars

FRI, 31 AUG 2018

From geometric patterns to elaborate curlicues and floral motifs, here’s a look at the vintage household grilles of Malaysia. ...

off the beat

Malaysian Film Industry

THU, 30 AUG 2018

How do Malaysia’s film studios make the difficult decisions that lead to a successful project? The movie industry is often ...

off the beat

Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur

TUE, 28 AUG 2018

An initiative to train homeless people as tour guides is helping to put lives back on the map. Josh, as he prefers simply to be kn...