As the International Year of Astronomy draws to a close, the sky’s the limit when it comes to exciting ways to view the stars in the bush.
Story By Ken Eastwood
A silver-haired outback magician, Roger Henwood flourishes a finger at the heavens. “It will appear about there and go to about there,” the Facilities and Security Coordinator for the Department of Defence at Woomera says. From a rough camp amid the mulga in the middle of South Australia, he looks skyward, and sure enough, on cue, a light appears, sliding across the sky for 11 seconds, getting brighter and then disappearing again.
Roger’s impressive fortune-telling ability is aided by the wonders of technology: his well-travelled laptop on the dash of the four-wheel-drive is rigged to a website, www.heavens-above.com, that precisely predicts when panels on satellites or the international space station tilt into the sun, making them visible to those on the ground. The site indicates what the object is, and how bright and how long it will shine. All you need to do is input your GPS coordinates.
Although star-gazing has been an Australian pastime for 40,000 years or so and is now sewn permanently on our patriotic hearts via the Aussie flag, technology is making astronomy easier and easier to enjoy. Take some of the incredible new applications that can be downloaded to an iPhone. Using the phone’s inbuilt compass, GPS and accelerometer, programs such as Star Walk and pUniverse can tell you exactly what you are looking at. All you need to do is hold the phone up at the sky, and it works out where you are and what you are seeing, identifying individual stars, constellations, galaxies and planets – and even provides links to more information or close-up photographs.
Of course, anyone with a swag knows you don’t need such high-tech gear to enjoy the stars. The best motel around is the one rated with a million stars or so – pretty much anywhere away from the lights of the big smoke. On nights where the moon is new and the Milky Way shines like a spilt vanilla milkshake on a velvet rug, the view is heavenly. Shooting stars run like streakers in front of a shining crowd, and the hidden black emu becomes prominent, stretching magnificently across the sky, its head pointing south, and its body defined by the dark spaces between groups of bright stars.
The emu is just one of the astronomical features that are prominent in Aboriginal legends. In some Central Australian stories, the star group known and loved as the Southern Cross is the footprint of a wedge-tailed eagle, the pointers his throwing sticks and the nearby dark patch his nest.
Aboriginals also used the skies as a calendar, knowing that the presence of particular stars or groups of stars indicated food sources were ready, or it was time for ceremonies. So star-gazing wasn’t a new thing when James Cook arrived, but one of the main purposes of his first voyage was to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, to determine the distance of the sun and the scale of the solar system.
After the founding of the Australian colonies, private observatories began to crop up and our skywards views magnified as world-leading government observatories were established in capital cities from the middle of the 19th century. The Great Melbourne Telescope, with its 1.2-metre reflector, was the largest telescope in the world when it was constructed in 1868.
Our most internationally significant astronomical venture, though, was the construction of the observatories at Siding Spring Mountain near Coonabarabran, NSW. The first telescope was installed there in 1962, and 13 years later, the four-metre-long Anglo-Australian Telescope.
However, the Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory, the effervescent Fred Watson, emphasises you really don’t need state-of-the-art technology to view the stars. “Binoculars do a fantastic job,” he says. “For example, Jupiter’s really bright in the sky at the moment, and you can usually see one or more of Jupiter’s moons, just with binoculars. The main trick is to try to get somewhere where the sky’s really dark.” Those outside capital cities have a natural advantage.
This story excerpt is from Issue #68
Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2010