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The Challenges — and Dangers — of Amateur Astronomy in Afghanistan

A local farmer from Afghanistan looks at the night sky through a telescope. Credit: Yunos Bakhshi from the Afghanistan Astronomy Association.

Most amateur astronomers take for granted that they can just go outside and enjoy viewing the night sky without encountering many problems — aside from keeping mosquitoes at bay or fixing equipment malfunctions. But in order for amateur astronomers in Afghanistan to simply set up a telescope in a dark region, they have to deal with more serious complications, such as making sure the area is clear of land mines, not arousing the suspicions the Taliban or the local police, and watching out for potential bombing raids by the US/UK/Afghan military alliance. But amateur astronomers like Saeid Aghaei and Yunos Bakhshi take those risks in stride just so they can share the beauty of the night sky with the Afghani people.

Aghaei is an amateur astronomer and a science and technology columnist from Neyshabur, Iran. For several years, he has been translating Universe Today articles on space and astronomy and publishing them in his local newspaper in Iran. But he is now in Kabul, Afghanistan working with his Afghan friend Yunos Bakhshi, to help establish and nurture the Afghanistan Astronomy Association. Bakhshi is one of the founders and is currently head of the organization.

This organization was initiated during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, but has faced difficulties; not only from the upheaval the country is experiencing but because of the limited scientific exposure the general public has in Afghanistan. Bakhshi said there is confusion between astronomy and astrology (which, unfortunately happens everywhere) and also, due to limited access to the internet and illiteracy among the majority of Afghanis, many don’t see the practical applications of studying the sciences.

But on their website, the Afghan Astronomy Association says they hope to help make it easier to learn more about astronomy for all Afghans with different levels of knowledge on the subject.

“We believe, that astronomy can solve one of the background problems of Afghanistan; the struggle over the real ownership of this country, which lasts more than three decades. We try by wiping off the gun smoke from Afghanistan sky, to show the beauty and mysterious of Universe to all Afghans; so they will understand that this world, this blue planet and even this sun with its planets are just a tiny point in the Grand picture of Universe that no one is better than other; except by knowledge and moral values.”

Bakhshi said he and Aghaei are “committed to disseminate the astronomy knowledge among ordinary Afghans, mainly school children.” They are helping the cause by doing what they call “Adventure Astronomy” – basically braving dangerous situations to expose more Afghanis to astronomy.

The two shared their experiences from a recent night of skywatching in Afghanistan:

A view of the night sky about 20 km from Kabul, Afghanistan, with light pollution from the Bagram Military Base. Credit: Yunos Bakhshi.

At the end of last week, they traveled about 20 km from Kabul with a group of interested people. Even at that distance they experienced light pollution from the city and the American military base in Bagram. “Our observation site was a small farm not so far from the main highway,” Aghaei told Universe Today in an email. “It was a peaceful and calm place (based on local standards): all land mines are cleared or exploded, no sign of Taliban, because two days before they attacked Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and based on our experiences and statistics (nonofficial), they would rest for one or two weeks. The only concern of us, even from the start of night was the battery charge (energy supply). But our presence with suspicious equipments triggered the local farmers’ concerns.”

After aligning the telescope, a car slowly approached, shining its lights on Aghaei and his friends, which included scientist Yunos Bakhshi and another amateur astronomer, and several Afghani people who were just interested in seeing the night sky.

“Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by a group of gunmen,” Aghaei said. “We explained that we are astronomers, but the local police commander approached so to be sure that we are not terrorists and that our telescope had no military application and it is not a rocket launcher. We invited him to watch M4 Star Cluster, but he didn’t like it and said that his own binocular is more powerful. He told us were a group of half-witted and nothing else. One of the police registered our names and listed all our equipment.”

This frightened some of people who had joined the astronomers and many of them left.

“We explained that in most cases national and international forces do not mistake and do target civilians, but we couldn’t assure them, and most of them (who for sure were saner than us) escaped and left us three astronomers alone,” Aghaei said.

Just when they finally had a chance to start observing and do some night sky photography, the sky was lit up from bright lights from the Bagram Military Airbase, one of the big bases of US forces in Afghanistan.

“We were sure that the American forces launched some kind of military training and that is why they simulated the daylight condition.” Aghaei said. “After one hour another issue halted our observation: saving our life: two military helicopters in their way to the Bagram military base, with no light crossed the sky over us. At first we were ready to risk our life but not turn off the telescope remote, because once again alignment could take a lot of time, but finally we preferred to stay alive. We heard that in many occasions by mistake pastors were attacked by these iron birds, and this issue forced us not to play Russian roulette.”

Aghaei quickly looked one last time at M27 and then turned off the telescope and lay down on the ground and didn’t move. The trio realized only later that the military could have had night vision cameras and the astronomers could have been spotted. Aghaei also said with this experience, he is going to propose to telescope companies that they invent a special button to switch off the remote control light in situations like this, at least for Afghan astronomers.

But their adventures weren’t over for the night. Next, a pack of dogs approached and began barking loudly. Aghaei said they dispersed the dogs by inventing a new application for green laser pointers.

Ultimately, the group was able to do what they hoped most, to take some astronomical images from their observations. Here is their image of M27:

Saeid Aghaei’s first experience of deep sky photography in Afghanistan, showing M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. Credit: Saeid Aghaei.

Aghaei and Bakhshi reflected on their experiences.

“Finally the night passed and close to dawn we arrived to the main entrance check point to Kabul city. We were thinking about our adventures and want to say that, no matter what kind of telescope or photography equipment you have, even it is not important you have got the first deep sky photo or TWAN-style (The World At Night) photo of this country (we had such experience that night), but it was important that we saved our life. We realized that for any next observation program, the main challenge is security concern and this factor will determine where ever we want to go for next our observation.”

But – no question — they will be going again, and Aghaei says, “Anyone who wants to experience such adventure we highly appreciate and welcome.”

Find out more about the Afghan Astronomy Association at www.kabulsky.com

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • TomN July 5, 2011, 6:46 PM

    Wow, what an amazing story. To have to go through so much, just to get a peek of the sky.

  • Molnár László July 5, 2011, 7:40 PM

    Could this be his flickr page by any chance?
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/saeid_a/

  • James Morgan July 5, 2011, 9:03 PM

    Thanks for the great post. Makes me really appreciate what I have. Great pic of M27 too. Those cops made me angry. I bet his binoculars suck. Makes me want to play a famous N.W.A song… you know the one. :D

  • Anonymous July 5, 2011, 9:16 PM

    There is so much to be thankful for we astronomers in most Western nations. It is amazing how much we take for granted. Although I have been attacked by a pack of coyotes while observing before…

    • M Peter Selman July 6, 2011, 12:16 AM

      Wow, what was that like?

      • Anonymous July 6, 2011, 2:27 AM

        Well, I knew the danger before going in so my Jeep was parked next to me in the field. I just hopped in and honked the horn/flashed the lights and scared them off. However, I’m not sure if that would work on the Taliban or AirCav units…

      • Anonymous July 6, 2011, 2:27 AM

        Well, I knew the danger before going in so my Jeep was parked next to me in the field. I just hopped in and honked the horn/flashed the lights and scared them off. However, I’m not sure if that would work on the Taliban or AirCav units…

  • Reza Bayattork July 6, 2011, 5:44 AM

    ow…its very amazing,interesting and exciting.
    good luck

  • R?zvan-Alexandru Du?? July 6, 2011, 6:20 AM

    Awesome story! Best wishes to Saeid Aghaei and Yunos Bakhshi!

  • TerryG July 6, 2011, 11:41 AM

    …Bakhshi said there is confusion between astronomy and astrology (which, unfortunately happens everywhere)

    Then there’s the punchline about trying to reassure the person who just found out the difference between Cosmology and Cosmetology. “That’s O.K., they both have to do with time and gravity”.

    Great story, thanks UT. ;-)

  • TerryG July 6, 2011, 11:41 AM

    …Bakhshi said there is confusion between astronomy and astrology (which, unfortunately happens everywhere)

    Then there’s the punchline about trying to reassure the person who just found out the difference between Cosmology and Cosmetology. “That’s O.K., they both have to do with time and gravity”.

    Great story, thanks UT. ;-)

  • spirulina July 6, 2011, 5:43 PM

    So he’s not a local farmer. Still, the article makes you more appreciative.

  • Anonymous July 7, 2011, 12:23 AM

    “that no one is better than any other; except by knowledge and moral values.”

    Beautiful quote.

    And damn those guys are brave – Going by some of the videos on youtube, it would hardly be surprising if they were engaged by an apache hovering a few km away, thinking they were planting an IED or something.

  • Sear Ebadi July 7, 2011, 11:03 AM

    Dear Bakhshi thank you very much for your efforts in field of Astronomy for Afghanistan.

  • Mohammed July 10, 2011, 5:12 AM

    Bakhshi, it is unbelievable. Afghan future generations will remember you.

    Keep up the good work.

    Best Regards MTA Kabul

  • NASIR Jan July 10, 2011, 7:42 AM

    Dear Bakhshi!

    Thank you very much for your efforts! Wish you best of luck and hope you can stay safe!

  • Grey Geek July 13, 2011, 7:44 PM

    Excellent photos!

    I used to own a Mead LX-200 and observed the night sky a lot. I know that getting good photos is not merely a matter of pointing and clicking.

    What equipment were you using, and did you integrate a laptop into the mix?

  • Grey Geek July 13, 2011, 7:44 PM

    Excellent photos!

    I used to own a Mead LX-200 and observed the night sky a lot. I know that getting good photos is not merely a matter of pointing and clicking.

    What equipment were you using, and did you integrate a laptop into the mix?

  • Anonymous July 13, 2011, 8:37 PM

    Hey let’s find a way to send them our old but usable equipment. I’m sure they could use things like H-alpha filters etc. They should be given a designated field in which to observe from so that they aren’t endangered by UAVs. I wonder what the cost of such land would be over there.

  • Jason Gates July 13, 2011, 9:38 PM

    well, Arabs have a long tradition in astronomy dating back to ancient times. Hopefully these people can give it back to the public where it belongs and hopefully the military will take note and use more caution when picking targets.

    • franglo July 14, 2011, 3:30 PM

      Yes but Afghans aren’t arab

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