Starry Eyes for the Southern Skies

December 3: One of the things I wanted to be sure to do down here in Australia is stargaze!  Astronomy is in my roots and I have never seen a clear southern sky. Those of you who know me know that I went to Antarctica in 2006-2007, but remember that I was there during the Austral summer so the Sun was up 24 hours each day and just moved in a circle along the horizon.  Even in New Zealand, where we stopped on the way down and back, it was cloudy at night.  That was really disappointing since Comet McNaught was visible and I didn’t get to see it.

Clouds hampered most of the beginning of my sabbatical, and my only astronomy-related activity was to visit the Sydney Observatory in early October.  There are some very nice telescopes on display there, including at least one that was used during James Cook’s visit to Australia to record the transit of Venus in 1769.  The 29-cm refracting telescope (below) is still used for public observing nights.

29-cm refracting telescope, used to observe the 1874 transit of Venus. It is the oldest working telescope in Australia (Sydney Observatory).


When it is clear, I look up.  So… I have been getting a kink in my neck as I try to learn a new set of constellations.  Early on in my stay, I was able to clearly identify Crux and Centaurus on my way home from the ANU each night, and I also saw Scorpius, which was at the zenith down here!  In Albion, it barely gets its whole shape above the southern horizon.  Now, in early December, Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, and Canis Major are all clearly visible in Canberra – only they are UPSIDE DOWN!  Yep! Orion is standing on his head.  Still, the Aborigines see these stars as a man chasing the Seven Sisters (the Pleaiades) in the Kungarangkulpa stories.

Aboriginal shield depicting the story of the Seven Sisters, aka the Pleaides (National Museum, Canberra).


My trip to Alice Springs and Uluru gave me 1.5 clear nights and my first chance to see the Large and Small Magellenic Clouds (LMC, SMC).  These are irregular galaxies that are gravitationally tied to our Milky Way Galaxy and appear to be wispy clouds in the night sky – but they don’t move like atmospheric clouds do.  They move with the stars and rotate about the Celestial South Pole; I saw them roughly 35 degrees above the southern horizon.  If my eyes could collect photons like CCD cameras do, I would see them as they are in this picture.  In early November, Adi, a grad student at the ANU, took Meredith and me up to Mt. Stromlo and I also saw the Clouds there, along with 47 Tuc, the second-brightest globular cluster in the sky. The first brightest is Omega Centauri, also in the Southern Hemisphere.  I also noticed Caldwell 96, an open cluster of young stars in the same part of the sky as the LMC.  All of these objects can be seen as faint blobs with the naked eye.  There are plenty of planets out, too.  Mercury and Venus have been hanging out just after sunset and Jupiter is high in the sky overnight.

Mercury (L) and Venus (R) over Kata Tjuta (November)


My visits to Mt. Stromlo were fantastic!  In addition to the observing night, I also went there to give a talk to students and faculty in the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA).  I had some time to wander around the place and saw the remnants of domes and telescopes that had been destroyed in the 2003 bushfire.

Burnt domes and melted telescopes from the 2003 bushfire.

It was pretty sobering to reflect on the damage the fire did, basically destroying the entire observatory and claiming four lives (none at the observatory).  Some domes and homes on the mountain survived though, when a change in the wind direction caused the fire to jump over them.  Most of the buildings cannot be torn down because they are heritage listed, so the reminder is constant. The astronomers at RSAA continue to do great things, though.  HAT-South detects extrasolar planets, and SkyMapper at the Siding Spring Observatory is creating the first comprehensive digital survey of the entire southern sky. Of course, if you’ve been reading my blog regularly, you already know that Brian Schmidt won 1/3 of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Kangaroos keeping watch over the observatories on Mt. Stromlo.



Australia has also played a major role in NASA missions, utilizing the dishes at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) in Tidbinbilla to track deep-space spacecraft, such as Voyager, one of the longest-traveling spacecraft, and Mars Science Lab, which is on its way to Mars.  Meredith and I spent a lovely afternoon there, enjoying gorgeous weather and great views! When we arrived, the 70-m antenna was receiving signals from Cassini.  Later, a radio astronomer was on duty and moved it to his objects of interest.

70-m dish (top L and R), collection of antennae at the CDSCC (bottom L), tracking schedule that includes Mars Science Lab for ~8 hours (bottom R).

In 1969, the radio antenna at Honeysuckle Creek received the first image of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon, a story that is the basis for the movie “The Dish“, which I’ve seen twice and highly recommend!  The actual dish was moved to Tidbinbilla in 1984 and used until 2009.

This is the 26-m dish that was located at Honeysuckly Creek and received images of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.


Meredith and I really enjoyed our visit to this facility, and I encourage everyone who is in the Canberra area to visit it. The admission is free and the Moon Rock Cafe serves good coffee with a great view of the 70-m dish.  Those of you addicted to your cell phones, however, should be aware that the CDSCC is a radio-quiet zone…that means no phones!

Meredith turns off her phone to help the CDSCC listen to "whispers from space".


Other links:
Aboriginal Astronomy
Positions of Mercury, Venus, and Antares in mid-November in the Southern Hemisphere
More info on 47Tuc
More info on the 2003 fire at Mt. Stromlo
History of the dishes at Tidbinbilla
Video of the 70-m dish moving

Thank you to Aditya Chopra and Devika Kamath, two ANU graduate students, for opening up the dome and for excellent conversation!  I’d also thank them for the clear skies, but I know better… 🙂


December 11 (Update): Read the Uluru blog for more details on the stargazing experiences in the Outback, including the Sounds of Silence dinner and observing from Imalung Lookout.  I should also note that we missed the lunar eclipse on December 10 because of clouds in Cairns; it’s the last total lunar eclipse in Australia until 2014.

4 thoughts on “Starry Eyes for the Southern Skies

  1. Nicolle, sounds like you and Merri have had some great trips around Canberra. Won’t be long until you’re back, put your coat at the top of your luggage it’s gotten chilly here since you left….
    I hope that perhaps you can take me out on a nice clear night (during summer) and you can point out some of the star constelations. Cheers Claire

    • Hi Claire! Meredith has been a great trip companion! I am looking forward to going home – Tim arrives in a few hours and we’ll have some nice excursions, too. Stargazing in Michigan? You bet!

  2. Nicolle …I wanna visit Australia !!! Seriously …!! Have traveled most of the ‘big’ places in the world …Just Australia is left !! Is it worth giving a look, provided that I am a big fan of nature ??

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