Trip to the Australian outback part 1: Star Party

My alarm rings at 8am and I open my eyes in an unfamiliar room. High ceiling, old wooden floor, large comfortable bed and big pillows. There is no noise around. No beeping sound, no horns, no cars to be heard. Silence. I’m at Wooleen Station, in outback Western Australia, some 250km inland. Outside, the seemingly endless outback with its characteristic sticky red dust, low bushes and trees on an almost flat land as far as the eye can see. We had driven the day before from Perth. An 8-hour roadtrip up the coast with views of the Indian Ocean and then through countryside Australia, before driving 200km on dirt tracks in the flat remote country.

Woolen station is a welcome haven in a harsh land, a lush oasis that has been there for over 100 years. The farm, after years of overgrazing by cattle, now dedicates itself to sustainable eco-tourism.

The entrance of Wooleen Station, a welcome oasis in a harsh unforgiving land.

The entrance of Wooleen Station, a welcome oasis in a harsh unforgiving land.

We have a hearty outback cooked breakfast then drive in our 4WD some 40km on dirt tracks to the camp site where the Murchison Astrofest is to take place today. We will camp there tonight with our telescopes. The event is booked out, 300 people are coming to the area, which is the size of the Netherlands, but where only about 120 people live (!). CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is organising the event. Throughout the day, we have talks from leading scientists, food, and telescopes outside for people to use, and something for kids of course!

Young minds set to become brilliant telescope engineers have a go at making their own antenna designs ;-)

Young minds set to become brilliant telescope engineers have a go at making their own antenna designs 😉

We set up displays about the Square Kilometre Array or SKA, the upcoming giant radio telescope, put out brochures about our work, ICRAR, and give-away planispheres for people to use. We explain to people what they will see at night. Venus, Saturn, the Moon, Omega Centauri, the new nova in Delphinus, etc.

People queued up in the late afternoon to take a look at the Sun through our 11-inch Celestron - equipped with a proper filter!

People queued up in the late afternoon to take a look at the Sun through our 11-inch Celestron – equipped with a proper filter!

The crowd queues up in the late afternoon to get a look at the Sun through our Celestron 11inch telescope, equipped with a solar filter. A few black sunspots about the size of Earth are visible on our star. Nearby, through a coronado, we can see nice flares and prominences. Watching the sun and learning of its violent outbursts and activity reminds people that our star is not fixed or passive in the sky and is a giant temperamental nuclear reactor that can wreak havoc…

As the warm sunny day comes to an end, shadows creep up and gorgeous golden and red colours appear around. As the evening settles in and the horizon turns bright red, Venus, the “evening star”, shines brightly in a deep blue sky. I point my telescope towards it and can see a small yellowish oblong shape – too big to be a star – as the sun hits the planet sideways. The 2nd planet of the Solar System is definitely recognizable.

ICRAR's 11-inch Celestron telescope proves throughout the night

ICRAR’s 11-inch Celestron telescope proves throughout the night

People start queueing up to take a look through our telescopes at  objects of the night sky and ask us questions about them.

The Moon surface shot through the eyepiece with a smartphone

The Moon surface shot through the eyepiece with a smartphone

At the sky turns black and hundreds of stars appear, a bright 2/3 Moon shines high in the sky, hiding the Milky Way and fainter stars behinds its glare. In the telescope, it comes alive. I focus on a big crater impact near the terminator – the day/night limit – and can clearly see its rim and central mound and their long shadows. As Earth rotates, the Moon slowly drifts in my eyepiece and the landscape changes to darker plains and other crater impacts. I feel like an Apollo astronaut on orbit. People are fascinated by the view too. They seem to re-discover it, as if it were a long-lost friend. One they hadn’t seen since their childhood. We often forget or dismiss the Moon, but our only satellite plays a major role in our cultures and on Earth! (And it’s beautiful) I clumsily take a snapshot with my smartphone through the eyepiece.

Saturn shot through the eyepiece with a smartphone

Saturn shot through the eyepiece with a smartphone

Next is Saturn. Probably my favourite object of the night sky. And sure enough, there it is, as always, hanging bright in the dark with its rings. But this time, there is something more to it. A slightly darker shade on the outer part of the ring: the Cassini division, marking the division between rings A and B. And to the side, three faint dots, and a brighter one out. They’re moons of Saturn, and the brighter one is probably Titan. What a sight! Hundreds of millions of kilometres away, Saturn can still dazzle you.

As night advances, the crowd thins until only the owners of the telescopes are left, chatting about planets, comets and telescopes while sipping a beer. It’s been a long day but so rewarding to interact with everyone out here in the outback, see their curiosity and sense of wonder as they look through our telescopes.

And when everything is finally packed up and people have left, and before going back to our tents, we find our way near the huge bonfire to the sound of a didgeridoo and citar to talk about the Universe until the late hours under the silent outback stars…

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