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You notice the stars before anything else...

I mean really notice them – like there are millions up there and you can’t believe that they’ve been there all this time. Welcome to Australia’s first Dark Sky Park, welcome to Siding Spring Observatory.

Group induction is thorough – it has to be when you’re a guest of a functioning science research facility. Blinds must be shut before sunset every day, use red torchlight only, keep noise to a minimum during the day – astronomers sleeping! I have a flashback to school camp ‘activities’, however when you see the amazing science that is taking place on this mountain, every day, you quickly understand why these protocols must be in place.

It’s an extraordinary experience exploring Australia’s largest optical telescope facility, set amongst the incredible landscape of the Warrumbungle National Park. The iconic Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT) stands an impressive seventeen storey’s high and this magnificent dome structure can be seen from miles away. Guides are very knowledgeable and there is often opportunity to chat informally with local astronomers, engineers and scientists over a coffee in the Astronomers Lodge. You can’t help but feel privileged.

From Trig Point we witness a beautiful setting sun that prelude’s another magnificent and pristine night sky. Like magic, the stars begin to appear one by one. It’s May and looking west we see the constellation of Orion, the Hunter. On turning to the East Scorpius is rising and high in the southern sky is the constellation Crux, better known as the Southern Cross.

Our enormous universe is full of stars, arranged in gigantic groups called galaxies. Our planet Earth, and the solar system it belongs to, is located in the outer reaches of our own galaxy – the Milky Way. The Milky Way is believed to contain more than 200 billion stars and there are billions and billions of galaxies each with an enormous number of stars.

Feeling rather small and insignificant but this doesn’t worry me in the slightest - I’m participating in the ancient pastime of stargazing. We may not find the answer to the meaning of life, but through astronomy we get a context, and that I think is a pretty cool STARt.

written by Cathy Axford - Dark Sky Traveller - assistant to the stars!


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