The Magical Maldives at Night - An Astronomer’s Paradise
While most people are transfixed looking down when they arrive in the Maldives, it can also pay to look up!
While the beaches and Centara resorts may be spectacular, the best of the Maldives lies beneath the waves. The Maldives entry stamp in your passport backs this up, depicting an idyllic underwater scene beneath your arrival date. However, this assertion doesn’t quite tell the whole story, because the Maldives can be equally amazing when you look in quite the opposite direction - up towards the night sky.
The Southern Cross Seen from the Northern Hemisphere
For astronomers, the Maldives has two very important advantages. First, it is located close to the equator, which means that the stars of both the northern and southern hemispheres are visible. For example, this gives residents of more northerly latitudes a chance to see the iconic Southern Cross constellation – the stars that appear on the flag of Australia, as well as those of New Zealand, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.
No Light Pollution
The second advantage is that stargazing requires the kind of dark skies that only remote areas with an absence of light pollution can provide.
This kind of nighttime darkness is measured on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, which goes from 1 to 9, with 1 being the darkest, and 9 indicating the kind of sky you’ll find over a brightly illuminated cityscape.
Away from the capital, Male, the Maldives consistently delivers skies registering 2-4 on the Bortle Scale. Furthermore, since the country comprises tiny atolls separated by large expanses of water, there is very little of the atmospheric disruption you might normally find caused by heat rising from the land. In short, clear dark skies are the norm, especially during the dry season from November to April.
Reach out and Touch the Milky Way
One of the undoubted highlights to look out for is the Milky Way. From our own position within the galaxy, it appears as a starry band stretching across the sky. The Romans termed it the Via Lactea in reference to its resemblance to a splash of spilled milk. The light comes from up to 400 billion stars, too distant to see individually, but forming a collective glow which is at its brightest from the core of the Milky Way – a bar around 20,000 light years in length which contains around a quarter of all the stars in the galaxy. At the very centre is Sagittarius A, which is a supermassive black hole. Our own planet is around 27,000 light years from the core, located in one of the spiral arms which form the familiar disc shape of the Milky Way.
March to September is the perfect time to see the Milky Way. In March, our nearest star other than the Sun, Proxima Centauri, is visible from the Maldives through binoculars. It is four light years away; what we see today is how the star looked four years ago when the light began its journey. Consider that if the Sun were the size of a ping-pong ball, then Proxima Centauri would be the size of a pea, around 1,100 km away. And bear in mind that the Milky Way itself is around 105,000 light years across.
How to Photograph the Milky Way
Apart from simply gazing at this natural wonder in awe, you might like to try capturing photographic images using a smartphone. The ideal time is a dark night when the moon is not visible, but you will need a tripod to hold the phone in place, and a remote shutter, because it is imperative that the phone doesn’t move at all during the long exposure that is required. Then you select a shutter speed of 30 to 60 seconds, and an ISO of 1600 to 3200. Make sure the flash is turned off, and focus manually. If you can set the image size to RAW, do so, and use the highest picture quality available. In the right conditions, you might just be able to bring home a unique souvenir of your Maldives trip.
The Milky Way and Andromeda - Galaxies set to Collide
One hundred years ago, astronomers assumed that all the stars in the universe were a part of the Milky Way, but Edwin Hubble proved them wrong when he was able to determine that the Andromeda Nebula was in fact another galaxy, beyond our own. At 2.5 million light years away, it is the only thing outside the Milky Way that can be seen with the naked eye – although binoculars or a small telescope will help you to get a much better view.
On a longer timescale, however, you might be interested to know that Andromeda is actually moving steadily towards the Milky Way, and the two galaxies are set to collide in around five billion years from now. This may appear rather ominous, but the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has reassuringly calculated that while our solar system might be ejected to a point much further from the core of the galaxy than we are accustomed to at present, the system itself will probably not be adversely affected. The night sky, however, will become very different to the one you can enjoy today.