Semakau Island popular haunt for Singapore astronomers

'Trash island' by day, star-studded by night
Ng Tze Yong, The New Paper 12 Aug 09;

IN THE still of the night, Mr Ang Poon Seng clicks on a laser pointer, sends a neon-green beam a mile high into the sky, and proceeds to turn the galaxies into a PowerPoint slideshow.

He points out the Southern Cross hanging low over Batam and singles out the seven stars of the Big Dipper, sprawled over the CBD on the Singapore mainland.

He connects the dots above, and the constellations morph into scorpions and Greek gods.

A group of Singaporeans, young and old, hangs on to his every word, spell-bound.

Here at Semakau Island, Singapore's hobbyist astronomers have discovered their Holy Grail - Singapore's darkest night sky.

A 20-minute ferry ride from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, Semakau Island is the world's first offshore landfill created entirely from sea space, an island paradise of grassland and mangroves created from what you chuck down the rubbish chute.

The Astronomical Society Of Singapore (Tasos), where Mr Ang is vice-president, has been organising trips there since 2006.

'It's one of the best places in Singapore to stargaze,' said Mr Ang.

'Almost the entire Singapore island is light-polluted. In the past, at least, you could stargaze at the seaside. But now, there are too many ships anchored offshore.'

The trips to Semakau Island take place about four to six times a year and groups vary in size from 20 to 60.

Tasos members pay $30 and members of the public pay $45.

These trips are just some of the many that Tasos organises.

During the total solar eclipse last month, for example, Tasos organised a trip to Wuhan in central China.

Weekend jaunts, however, are restricted to Mersing in Malaysia, forested areas near Singapore's reservoirs and Semakau Island.

The trip to Semakau Island begins at dusk via chartered ferry from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal, used mainly by workers from the oil refineries.

Upon arrival at the Semakau Island Ferry Terminal, the group, made up of families and young couples, is invited into an air-conditioned visitor centre where they are greeted by staff from the National Environment Agency (NEA).

After a video screening about the Semakau Island landfill project, the group tucks into a dinner of packet food and sandwiches.

There are no restaurants on the island.

A mini-van then takes them to the stargazing site 4km away.

At this isolated spot located at the end of a bund, there is only a shelter and a mobile toilet.

For the faint-hearted, NEA staff come by their mini-van twice in the night, at 10pm and 1am, to pick up anyone who wants to use the loo and shower facilities back at the visitor centre.

Tents, hammocks and safari beds are quickly set up. Those who brought telescopes point them at different corners of the night sky.

Everyone keeps an anxious eye on the sky conditions. Cloud cover can mean hours of waiting and a wasted night.

Heavens open

But thankfully, on the night I went, the heavens obliged, and at about 9pm, the astronomers begin their craft - with a quiet, almost reverent, joy.

Families shuffle from telescope to telescope with excited whispers.

A boy with a headlamp alternates between peering with a grimace through his telescope and furiously flipping through an astronomy manual.

An elderly man sits, as if in prayer, cradling his baby - a $3,000 telescope that resembles more a cannon.

It has a galactic GPS of sorts, he says.

Just punch in the latitude and longitude of your location and the time of the night. Then, punch in a planet's code and watch the telescope buzz and turn.

Peer in and - voila! - the planet turns up in the viewfinder.

Jupiter, which shows up just after midnight, appears as a striped, orangey dot with four white specks - its moons - suspended around it.

Saturn, high up in the western sky, resembles more of a symbol you might find on a computer keyboard - a white dot with a diagonal dash - its ring - neatly cutting it in half.

Somewhere between the two, but much further away from Earth, is a star cluster named Jewel Box, which is a disappointment at first glance - it looks like a cloud of specks - until Mr Ang tells you each speck is actually a star bigger than our sun.

The night passes like this. Planets, stars and galaxies rise in turn over the horizon, clear the lights of the container ships, and arch overhead before sinking back down into the sea.

The astronomers gaze, feet on trash, eyes on stars.

Just before daybreak, Mercury rises. The sun follows soon after, and the star show is over.

Mr Soh Kim Mun, a 43-year-old engineer, there with his seven-year-old daughter Mabel, hopes the hobby will, quite literally, broaden her horizon.

'Astronomy is kind of a selfish hobby,' he says. 'It's a very quiet activity. But as you slowly observe, you will find yourself asking: Why are we here?'

Contrary to what many believe, astronomy in Singapore is not difficult, says Mr Ang.

'We are situated at the equator so we have a good view of both the northern and southern skies,' he says.

'We also do not have the four seasons, so we can watch the sky 365 days a year.'

And that accessibility may benefit those who have an eye for more than just what's out there.

Raphael Loh, 11, the boy who was furiously flipping through his astronomy manual, confesses in the morning he was looking out for more than just stars.

'I think there are aliens out there,' he says.