CAASTRO Telescope Tour to Siding Spring Observatory

On Saturday 11 August, the first day of the 2012 National Science Week, teaching staff of Dubbo College Senior Campus participated in a CAASTRO-organised ‘Telescope Tour’ to Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran.

While news about the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope has put the Western Australian outback on the astronomical map, central New South Wales is also right up there as a world-leader in astronomy research.

Tucked away in the Warrumbungle Mountains, the observatory hosts Australia’s premier optical and infra-red telescopes, among them Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt’s SkyMapper telescope (run by the Australian National University) and the Anglo-Australian Telescope, run by the Australian Astronomical Observatory in Sydney (AAO).

“To use our optical telescopes and observe millions of stars in the Southern Sky, we have to avoid the light pollution that comes with larger population centres. That means telescope facilities often remain unnoticed or at least unvisited, even by their nearest neighbours,” explains tour guide and star gazer Donna Burton of Siding Spring Observatory.

“We felt it was important to show science teachers how powerful astronomy is as a stepping stone into a whole range of employment options for their students. It is such a multi-disciplinary field that offers training in so many important areas of science, and indeed life,” says CAASTRO Education & Outreach Coordinator, Dr Wiebke Ebeling. “We want to work with teachers in using the momentum created by Brian Schmidt’s 2011 Nobel Prize and by the SKA site decision to communicate astronomy as a possible career path for young people.”

In the very capable hands of Donna Burton, the group was taken from Dubbo to Siding Spring Observatory for a tour of ‘her mountain’ and the on-site telescopes. The group also had the opportunity to meet and talk to Prof Fred Watson, a well-known astronomy communicator who is Astronomer-in-Charge of the AAO at Coonabarabran and happened to be observing with the UK Schmidt Telescope at the time.

“Astronomy is so much more than looking at the sky. Don’t get me wrong, I am still in love with the sky after all these years, but astronomy is also home to the world’s most powerful supercomputers, the latest developments of digital camera designs, and revolutionary engineering solutions. And for locals to realise that their very own backyard plays a part in this, that is just the best feeling,” Burton concludes.

Being a working research facility, Siding Spring Observatory has no public star-gazing facilities but as part of the ‘Telescope Tour’, these Dubbo College teachers caught a glimpse of the world of astronomy that might make them look differently at the Universe.