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Posted on 6 July, 2019 in Entertainment

Constellations in the southern sky – beginners guide to astronomy

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You can’t help but wonder what is out there when you look up and see the stars. Find out more about astronomy and stargazing on the Central Coast.

With fewer city lights, the Central Coast is the ideal location for stargazing.

If you’re fascinated with the stars, planets and constellations, you’re not alone. Thousands of people around the world are intrigued by celestial bodies and they have been studied for centuries.

Find out more about the ancient art of astronomy and some ideal stargazing locations close to the Central Coast with this guide.

What is astronomy?

Astronomy, put simply, is the observation and study of celestial objects. Everything in the sky above the clouds and the atmosphere forms part of astronomy.

Throughout time, humans have always peered into the night sky and tried to make sense of what they saw. Across the ages, many legends have told of how the stars came to be. From the children of the sun and moon to stone chips tossed by a trickster coyote, lovers locked in the sky or the hair of an Egyptian queen, dozens of tales have sought to explain the skyscape we see every night.

We know now that stars are far from being the hair of an Egyptian queen (they are superheated balls of gas). However, the beauty of the stars remains. Telescopes, with their increasing power, also serve to enhance what we know.

Astronomy in times gone by

Ancient civilisations relied on the stars in many ways.

For example, the Ancient Egyptians found astronomy fascinating and used it to help time the seasons. Not only that, the Pyramids of Giza are understood to be aligned to certain constellations in accordance with Egyptian religions.

The Ancient Mayan people were phenomenal astronomers. As a result, some of their astronomical calculations are among the best in the pre-modern world. Their accuracy was only surpassed by the coming of the telescope.

According to thoughtco.com, “The Maya believed that the Earth was the center of all things, fixed and immovable. The stars, moons, sun, and planets were gods; their movements were seen as them going between the Earth, the underworld, and other celestial destinations. These gods were greatly involved in human affairs, and so their movements were watched closely.

Many events in Mayan life were planned to coincide with certain celestial moments. For example, a war might be delayed until the gods were in place, or a ruler might ascend to the throne of a Mayan city-state only when a certain planet was visible in the night sky.”

Astronomy in navigation

As well as predictions of the seasons and being used in military decision-making, the stars have long been a vital navigational tool. Before satellite technology or even compasses, seafarers from across the globe would rely on the stars to see them to their destination. As an example, this story is shared in the recent Disney movie Moana. Young Moana learns to “read every star” the way her Polynesian ancestors did.

To this day, a basic knowledge of the stars will help you out of a tough spot. For instance, if you see the Southern Cross, you should be able to get your bearings (more on this in a moment).

After the invention of the telescope, Galileo put his eye to one and our perception of the world changed forever. Despite what he suffered at the hands of an overzealous church, Galileo’s discovery of orbiting moons ultimately proved the shocking theory that the Earth was not the centre of the universe.

Astronomy is not only a fascinating hobby that teaches us so much about the world and universe we live in. Many believe that out there, somewhere, are others like us, (or perhaps totally unlike us) who are waiting to study our species, join our planet or maybe even destroy it completely. The universe is so vast, anything is possible!

 

Info for stargazing on the Central Coast

Constellations and planets to look for if you’re in NSW:

 

Southern Cross

The Southern Cross is an iconic part of Australian culture. One of the most significant constellations in the southern hemisphere, it even features on our national flag. The kite-shaped collection of stars helped generations of navigators. There are technical ways to use the Southern Cross to find due south, but if you simply keep it a little to your left, you will have a good idea of all the points on the compass.

 

Orion

Also known as ‘The Hunter’, Orion is a famously historical constellation. Named in ancient Greek times, it is even mentioned in the Bible. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, we see it best during summer.

 

Jupiter / Venus

The brightest object in the night sky after the moon is the planet Venus. Therefore, when you wish, ‘star light/ star bright/ first star I see tonight’ it is Venus you are wishing on. As the biggest planet in the solar system, Jupiter is visible to the naked eye. If you spot a brightly shining, silvery star that doesn’t appear to be ‘twinkling’, this could be Jupiter.

 

Ursa Major (The Big Dipper)

This fabulous, ladle-shaped constellation in one of the best known around the world. While it doesn’t hold the navigational significance here in the southern hemisphere that it does in the Northern hemisphere (that duty is taken over by the Southern Cross) it is still a recognisable and beautiful sight. Look for a square pattern of stars and an extending ‘handle’ in the sky.

 

Astronomy activities for stargazing on the Central Coast and beyond

 

Koolang Astronomical Observatory – 1hr drive

Located in Bucketty on the Great Northern Road, the Koolang Astronomical Observatory celebrates astronomy and science. Koolang is open to the public and there are special programmes for school children K-12.

Visit: https://au.educationhq.com/directory/36414/koolang-observatory/

 

Sydney Observatory – 1.5 hrs drive

The Sydney Observatory is one of the leading observatories in the Southern Hemisphere. Entry is free during the day, with a small fee for tours. At night, the Observatory offers paid tours (it is recommended to book ahead). Prices are reasonable and there is really no better way to observe the night sky.

Visit: https://maas.museum/sydney-observatory/

 

Linden Observatory – 2 hr drive

The Heritage listed Linden Observatory is perched on a rocky plateau in NSW’s beautiful Blue Mountains. Built in the 1940s, it is a rural go-to for amateur astronomers. All are welcome but tours are strictly by appointment only. Make a small donation to join and be a part of the regular groups who gather to admire the night sky.

Visit http://lindenobservatory.com.au/

 

Astronomical Society of NSW

Connect with a large group of like-minded people who are fascinated with the wonders of the cosmos by joining the Astronomical Society of NSW. The ASNSW runs monthly meetings with regular speakers. They organise access to astronomical observation facilities and even publish a magazine; Universe Magazine.

Visit http://www.asnsw.com/

 

Big skies collaboration

The Big Skies Collaboration blends science with the arts. This high concept organisation brings creativity and imagination into line with astronomy, running writing projects and art projects relating to space and the cosmos. Check out their website to see some of their current projects and to get involved.

Visit https://bigskiescollaboration.wordpress.com/

 

Warrumbungles – Australia’s first Dark Sky Park near Coonabarabran

Ideal for a longer trip, this Dark Sky Park is located five hours from the Central Coast and will delight stargazers.

Coonabarabran is a small town nestled next to the magnificent Warrumbungles National Park. This little town is now the unofficial astronomical capital of Australia due to the opening of Australia’s first Dark Sky Park. Stay in Coonabarabran and travel the short distance to the park and Siding Spring Observatory to see Australia’s largest optical telescopes.

The beauty of the Dark Sky Park is that even without a telescope you will see the most spectacular night skies. Warrumbungles Park is almost entirely free of the light pollution that smothers the sky in urban regions. As a result, you will get a glimpse of the night sky as it might have looked to the traditional owners of the land before European colonisation.

Visit: https://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/country-nsw/warrumbungle-area/stargazing-adventure

 

Astronomy events happening in or around Sydney

Sydney and NSW have our fair share of astronomy events every year. Here are a few events coming up around the state that can be accessed via the Central Coast:

  • Astronomy at the Calyx: Enjoy a night of astronomy and storytelling at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. This multicultural event celebrates the Australian sky. However, it is for adults only, as alcohol is served.
  • Picnic Under the Stars: If you hoped for a family night out and couldn’t do the Calyx, this is a more child-friendly option. Also run by the Macquarie Astronomical Society, this is a family-friendly event held at the Australian Botanic Gardens.
  • Night Sky Discovery: Go on a guided tour with members of the Macquarie Astronomical Society. View planets, moons, binary stars, star clusters, nebulae and bright galaxies through our professional maintained 12″ and 16″ in-dome telescopes. Be guided by experienced, passionate and knowledgeable astronomy buffs.
  • School Holidays Universe Exploration: Take the kids to explore the cosmos in this special school holiday event at the Macquarie Planetarium. The Association for Astronomy offers public access to their planetarium for an experience your kids will never forget.

Equipment for stargazing from the Central Coast

Astronomy is available to everyone but you will need some equipment to get started. Firstly, for the most basic, a pen or pencil and a notepad, as well as a watch or timer are great for tracking and recording constellations. Invest in a telescope for more impressive viewing.

Astronomy telescopes are readily available online or in speciality stores. The price of telescopes varies from a few hundred dollars for something basic to well into the thousands. Unless you are particularly well off and very, very keen on amateur astronomy, it is best to start out with a mid to low range telescope and work your way up as you become more familiar with the technology. Unless you buy something very cheap, most mid and low tier telescopes will do most of what you need them to do.

Apps to make stargazing easy

These days our phones have everything we need for most pursuits and stargazing on the Central Coast is no exception. There are a number of great apps that help you get started and learn about the stars. Here are just a few:

  • Night Sky Lite: This is easy to use and popular app. Not only does it guide your viewing and check the weather, but it also has a healthy and lively community.
  • NASA: The obvious choice for anyone interested in astronomy. NASA’s app keeps you up to date with all the latest news from the world’s leading space flight organisation. It will also let you know when you have the best opportunity to see the International Space Station.
  • Star Chart: Star Chart offers fun augmented reality as well as allowing you to travel through time. With this app, you can see the stars as they were or will be up to 10,00 years in the past or future. You can also see the night sky from different places around the world.
  • SkyView Free: This app uses your phone’s camera to help you track stars paths and identify celestial objects. It can also connect to Facebook and Twitter so you can share your findings with all your friends.

Ready to do some stargazing on the Central Coast? 

When it comes down to it, whether you have expensive equipment, access to special facilities or simply your eyes, it is worth stopping to enjoy the night sky. Step outside on a clear night and look up. There is an entire universe up there waiting to be discovered.

Once you’ve spent some time stargazing, especially if you are on the Central Coast, head to the Mingara Recreation Club for a late dinner. We are open late so should you find yourself lost for hours you will always have somewhere to come to.

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