To see the stars clearly, you must not look at them directly — you have to look past them, to train your eyes to stare into infinite distances where shiny points are separated by light years.
The amateur astronomers who set up their telescopes next to the Johannesburg Observatory say it takes about 30 minutes of complete darkness for your eyes to gain their night vision, which makes it easier to look at stars and planets — which is why they get so frustrated by the glare of headlights from a passing car: it means a half-hour wait before you can gaze clearly at the heavens again.
Inside the observatory is the massive Innes refractor telescope, installed in 1925. At one time, the observatory played a major role in global astronomy — 579 new minor planets were spotted before 1938 — and it was there that Proxima Centauri, the closest known star to our solar system, was discovered.
The Innes telescope is particularly good for looking at stars, say the astronomers who operate the 90-year-old machinery.
On the night I am there — to celebrate the launch of a new stamp series for the Post Office — the telescope reveals a tiny but perfect image of Saturn; next, they say, it will be trained on the bright Acrux, or the bottom star, of the Southern Cross. To the naked eye it appears to be a single star, but telescopes reveal it to be two stars orbiting around each other.
It is the space between the stars that fascinates artist Marcus Neustetter, who worked with the Post Office to produce a set of stamps celebrating South Africa’s role in astronomy.
Neustetter traces his own interest in astronomy back to the summit of Kilimanjaro, where he stood and saw the lights of the city of Moshi mirrored in the night sky above.
The stamps, released this week, depict several of the country’s observatories and telescopes and celebrate the newly formed South African National Space Agency. They also acknowledge the role of indigenous and amateur astronomy in interpreting our night skies.
Collaborations are nothing new to Neustetter, who is one half of the art production team Trinity Session. His creative foil, partner and agitator is Stephen Hobbs.
Stamps provided different challenges. “The first challenge obviously was size,” Neustetter said. The second was working within a stamp sheet, breaking it up into Tetris-like blocks that would retain visual impact and remain easy to use and tear.
“We had the option of producing more sticker-like stamps, but I was quite adamant we dealt with real stamps in a classic sense, with a perforated edge. It speaks to astronomy, in the way that we still look through tubes even though the technology of the telescope has evolved.”
Neustetter said his drawings were very “personal and intimate, done at night under the stars without anyone around, imagining the space between the stars and my own dreams.”
He said it was possible to “fit a lot of information on a stamp [the background patterns on some of his designs even come from data and satellite images produced by the telescopes] — look at the point size of the text. It’s tiny, miniscule, but you can read it because people go to a stamp to read it. Their eyesight adjusts immediately.”
To see a stamp clearly, you have to look at it directly.
South Africa’s “role in astronomy” stamps and commemorative envelopes are available at Post Offices nationwide, and at virtualpostoffice.co.za from next week. For more information, contact philatelic services on 012 845 2814/15, or email [email protected]