Gazing the Stars – The Sydney Observatory

Sydney Observatory

I have to say that I’m a bit of a geek, but you would have already worked that out if you’ve read enough of my posts (particularly the ones on my other blog, Anyway, I’m not really sure what first lead me to check this place out, but as I was planning my latest trip to Sydney one of the things that I wanted to do was to go on a tour of the Sydney Observatory. To be honest I wasn’t really sure what to expect, and a part of me thought that I was going to be the only one going on the tour (because who else other than a hard core science geek would visit an observatory). As it turned out there were quite a few people in the group (as well as a school excursion, which I wasn’t all that surprised with that since I’m sure that there are a lot of science teachers that would want to drag their kids along to do some star gazing).

The observatory is actually very conveniently located – right next to the Harbour Bridge (though I suspect that it may have been around prior to the bridge since the hill is reasonably high and allows for a great view of the stars). You can visit the observatory during the day however the best time to go on a tour is on a really clear night (which is probably a no brainer). I took my chances and booked a month ahead and I have to say that somebody in the heavens must have been smiling on me because it turned out to be an absolutely beautiful night to look at the stars. The observatory is actually a part of the Museum of Applied Sciences and isn’t actually used for research but rather for public education (and for a spot of public star gazing as well, though since their latest telescope is worth upwards of $100,000.00 they don’t really like you touching it).

One thing that I discovered while perusing their website is that you can get the opportunity to name a star. It costs $300.00 for an individual (which is fully tax deductible) and the name gets placed on the register of stars in the southern hemisphere. It appears that the idea is to name the star after people (and organisations, though it costs a little more for them) and you then get a certificate which you can then give to the person whom the star has been named after. You can even select which constellation you would like your star to come from. With the countless number of stars up there I doubt they will be running out any time soon. Anyway, upon discovering this my imagination when into overdrive, and I finally came up with this:


In memory of the cat.

Schrodinger's Cat

The Museum

At 8:00 pm the doors to the observatory were opened and we are ushered in out of the cold night air to sign in for the tour (though it is pre-paid – no paying on the day). Once you have signed in you then get to have a look around the small museum that they have there (though a part of me was panicking, thinking that this was all I paid for). Anyway, the museum has a number of displays chronicling the history of astronomy in Australia. It should come as no surprise that this observatory was the first one built here, and was also used by mariners to set their navigational equipment.

There were some interesting items among the displays, which included an Chronometer (which apparently is a fancy name for a clock, though it is actually a marine navigation device used to determine longitude, a discovery that greatly enhanced the age of exploration). There was also a couple of other pieces of marine navigational equipment, including a sextant (which I’m not at all surprised to find in an observatory museum since they are used to track the stars). I also found out that the sextant is used to track latitude.

Sextant Chronometer

There were also a couple of old telescopes:

Telescope Telescope

There were a few other interesting things that I discovered as I was wandering around and reading the plaques, including the Aboriginals being keen astronomers (though they simply looked up at the stars as opposed to developing any sophisticated equipment – but then again a lot of ancient societies had a fascination with the heavens). Also the Parkes Observatory (which is actually a huge radar dish) discovered the first ever quasar – 3C273.

An artist’s impression

The First Telescope

Once everybody had signed in we were split into two groups and our first port of call was the brand new, $100,000.00 telescope out in the eastern observatory. Our guide’s first demonstration was to show us a binary star, being Albereo (namely because the stars have two different colours). Unfortunately we weren’t able to see them because, well, he couldn’t find them (despite some incredibly expensive computer equipment pointing the telescope). While I wasn’t able to see the stars through the telescope, I was able to find them on wikipedia afterwards.

Enter a caption

The problem with star gazing is that the Earth not only moves around an axis but also around the sun, which means that the stars are never going to be in the same position in the sky. However, the Earth moves in a lot more directions than just those two (the axis also spins in a circle) which means tracking specific stars can be very difficult. As such the astronomers have developed some very sophisticated computer systems to enable them to locate their stars. In fact the digital camera was original developed to assist astronomers in their research. When our guide told us that I suddenly realised that even some of the most obscure sciences can provide benefits to society (and the NASA space exploration missions have actually provided us with quite a lot). So, while we didn’t get to see Alberio, we did get to see Alpha and Proxima Centauri (though I have to say they simply looked like a couple of stars hanging in the sky).

Alpha and Proxima Centauri
Our Closest Neighbours

He then went on to explain how when we look at the stars we are looking at them as they were years ago. The reason behind that is that light actually travels at a finite velocity – a light year is the distance that light travels in a year, which means that when you look at a star that is 20 lights years away you are looking at what it looked liked twenty years ago. So, being my geeky self, I asked him whether we could look far enough back to see the beginning of the universe, and surprisingly he said yes. In fact scientists were actually trying to do that. If the universe began at a set point in time at the big bang then theoretically if we could look far enough into space we could see the ‘edge of the universe’. They managed to do this, but like all discoveries this was accidental – the scientists who discovered what has come to be known as ‘The Cosmic Background Radiation‘ initially thought it was pigeon poo. This seriously did my head in because I was always under the impression that the universe curved back in onto itself, but now it seemed that it actually has an edge. When I asked by Dad about it (he’s a scientist) he told me it does both. Now I’m confused.

Our guide then decided to show us another constellation known as ‘The Jewel Box‘. He described it as being like a collection of jewels that had been scattered about. Mind you when I looked into the telescope it simply looked like a bunch of starts. The thing with stars though, as I have already mentioned, is that they are not always in the same place so we were only able to see the Jewel Box around the time we visited the observatory. Anyway, here is a photo of the Jewel Box taken by some intrepid astronomer.

Jewel Box
It looks much better here,

The Second Telescope

We then left the eastern telescope and went outside to look at the stars with out naked eyes. However there was one thing that was bugging me – we were so close to the city of Sydney that I expected that the light pollution would make looking at any stars nigh impossible. Well the answer to that is yes and no. Yes in the sense that when we look up at the sky with our naked eye we are only going to see the brightest of the stars, however if we look at them through the telescope then there isn’t going to be a problem. Our guide even told us that the buildings actually have a height restriction so that the observatory has a clear view of the sky. However, if there is even a slight amount of cloud (which thank God wasn’t the case when I came here) then the light pollution would make star gazing impossible. However, if you jump into a car, drive out into the country (which I have done) then you can see the stars in all their glory.

Southern Cross
The Southern Cross in all it’s glory

While we were looking up at the sky our guide not only showed us the Southern Cross (which is somewhat a part of our Australian identity) but he also showed us how to find the galactic centre. Apparently you locate it by using the Southern Cross (though I can’t remember exactly how you did it). Also it appears that we can only see the galactic centre from the Southern Hemisphere. He also showed us how to find south. I know how to do it with a watch (I used to be a scout) though to be able to do that you need to be able to see the sun (which is a little difficult at night). Personally, if I want to find south I just whip out my mobile phone, though when I was bushwalking a few days later I discovered that the compass app on my phone is pretty useless (though Google Maps was really good, but then again if Google Maps knows where I am then so does the NSA – well, at least they can come and rescue me if I fall and break my leg).

Galactic Core
A random photo of stars that could be the galactic core.

We then went back inside to visit the second telescope, this time to look at Saturn. I have to say if there was one highlight of my trip to Sydney it was actually looking at Saturn through a telescope. In fact if there is one planet that you want to see it is Saturn because to be honest with you, it is awesome. In fact it completely blew my mind. Here I was, looking into the telescope and there was this amazingly awesome planet with some absolutely beautiful rings in my vision. I have only ever seen photographs of it, and there it was, in front oh my eyes. A part of me felt like I was looking at a picture, but no, it wasn’t, it was the real deal. However, all I can do here is simply show you another picture.

Not as good as seeing it through a telescope

All I can say is that I truly am blessed.

He did tell us a few things about Saturn, namely that is is 300,000 kms across and has a very corrosive atmosphere. Also, unlike the asteroid belt, where there are thousands of kilometres between the asteroids, the objects that make up the rings of Saturn are very close together. The other amazing thing about the rings of Saturn is that they are incredibly thin, which to be honest with you actually baffles me. How is it that the gravitational pull of the planet is able to create these perfectly thin rings.

The South Dome

The South Dome is actually the oldest dome in the observatory and it had just been restored when I passed through. Mind you this telescope is a pretty old telescope, so there isn’t any computer connected to it to guide it to where it is supposed to point, which makes locating planets and stars very difficult (particularly since they are always moving, so even if you pre-position it by the time you get the tour group to the telescope the star has moved on). So, instead of wasting a lot of time attempting to locate a star, our guide instead decided to point the telescope at the Balmain Clock Tower (which he pointed out is moving at the same speed, and in the same direction, as us). However as it turns out, when you look at it through the telescope it is actually upside down (a little like this):

Balmain Clock Tower
There is a valid scientific reason as to why this happens

So, that sort of brought our tour to an end, except that our guide happens to be one of those guys that can talk the ear off anybody, especially if it has something to do with cosmology and black holes (which is his speciality). Not surprisingly I then asked him if it was true whether there is a super-massive blackhole in the centre of the galaxy which causes the Milky Way to spin on its axis. His answer was an affirmative yes. Mind you, I do find it interesting that the galaxy has a ball at its centre but then it spins out into two spiral arms (and we are on the outer edge of one of those spiral arms). While one might suggest that the further away from the black hole we get, the less effect that its gravitational pull has on us, but then again it would still suggest the stars should still form into a ball. I guess there is a valid scientific explanation for that – even if they haven’t worked it out yet.

Milky Way
What it might look like

Oh, before I forget, he also told us a few things about Venus, and that is that since it is located between us and the sun it is the most visible star in the sky. In fact its location is the main reason why we see it both early in the morning and early in the evening (and why it has earned the name The Morning Star). Oh, he also told us that the reason that the ancients knew that the planets were different was because they didn’t behave like the other stars behaved. In fact the word planet means wanderer, and they obtained that name because they wander about the night sky unlike the other stars do, which generally just sit there. The reason they do that is simply because they also orbit the sun, so unlike the stars, move faster relatively to us (and this is also affected by the fact that we spin on an axis).

Might as well finish off with this planet
Creative Commons License
Gazing the Stars – The Sydney Observatory by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International LicenseIf you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to .


“Schrodinger cat in box” by ADA&Neagoe – self-made. Licensed under GFDL via Wikipedia

“Albireo 20150919” by Jefffisher10 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons

“Alpha, Beta and Proxima Centauri” by Skatebiker. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

“A Snapshot of the Jewel Box cluster with the ESO VLT” by ESO/Y. Beletsky – ESO. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons

“Coalsack-ESO-B06” by ESO/S. Brunier – Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Milky Way IR Spitzer” by Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech) – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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