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Trav­el writer Kate Turk­ing­ton takes a look at the moon at a stargaz­ing event with Vin­cent Nettmann at Maropeng. 

Vin­cent Nettmann, like so many oth­er astronomers, was cap­tured by the idea of map­ping out the moon and stars at a very young age. At the time of the Apol­lo 11 moon land­ing, Nettmann looked through the scope of a pel­let gun to try and spot the first men on the moon. I thought maybe I could see them up there, and of course I couldn’t. But imme­di­ate­ly I realised that you could draw a map of the moon.” And so, from his first tele­scop­ic sight­ing, he drew a map of the moon.

Spurred on by his inter­est in tele­scopes and lens­es, Nettmann found his way into work­ing with optics as a tech­ni­cian. But he felt that his greater pas­sion was for astron­o­my and stargaz­ing, and pro­vid­ing what he calls edu­tain­ment”.

Now he leads the stargaz­ing evenings at Maropeng, mix­ing inter­est­ing facts about astron­o­my with enter­tain­ment, such as tra­di­tion­al African tales. When I do these events for over­seas peo­ple, espe­cial­ly from the north­ern hemi­sphere and so on, they’re quite blown away that we have African star sto­ries down here in the south!”

There are three stargaz­ing events left this year.

In Octo­ber we’ll be gaz­ing up at the spring skies”. In Novem­ber, our evening is called Jour­ney to the edge of the uni­verse”, where you’ll learn about what the stars have to tell us about where we come from. And in Decem­ber, we’ll be gaz­ing at the sum­mer skies”. 

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(Image: Joel Tonyan (Flickr))

October’s stargaz­ing evening will focus on the the Pleiades, also known as the isiL­imela” or the Dig­ging Stars”.

Sto­ries are not the only thing that the south­ern hemi­sphere has to offer aspi­rant astronomers. As Nettmann explains, In the south­ern hemi­sphere there are two-thirds more stars than in the north­ern hemi­sphere – it’s just the way nature is. Then if you look at light pol­lu­tion in the big cities in Europe and Amer­i­ca, there’s so much of it com­pared to down here. So when those peo­ple arrive here, we might appre­ci­ate the stars here, but they are mind-blown when they see it.”

Accord­ing to Nettmann, Maropeng is the ide­al spot for stargaz­ing for those who have grown tired of the bright lights and noise of Johan­nes­burg. You can dri­ve 20 min­utes or 40 min­utes from where you live and you’re here, and Maropeng is just far enough away from Johan­nes­burg that we still have rea­son­able skies.”

Nettmann takes great plea­sure in help­ing peo­ple under­stand the stars, the plan­ets and the uni­verse. He likes to explain facts and fig­ures in unusu­al ways. He says, It’s bring­ing it to a lev­el where we can all under­stand with­out going into the heavy sci­ences and maths. For instance, the moon is 384 000km away on aver­age. So, if you could dri­ve to the moon in a straight line by car, non-stop at 120km/​h, it will take you four months and 10 days to get there.”

In these ways, Nettmann is fol­low­ing his pas­sion. And it all start­ed with a map of the moon. I thought I was the first per­son ever to draw a map of the moon,” he says. I’ve still got that draw­ing by the way … ”

Maropeng’s stargaz­ing events are extreme­ly pop­u­lar and require book­ing in advance. Enjoy an illus­trat­ed pre-din­ner talk, fol­lowed by a deli­cious meal, and then end your evening off by gaz­ing at the stars through large-aper­ture telescopes.

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