by Carrie Soderberg
There is a buzz of excitement in Oyster Bay, on the Georges River in Sydney’s south. Cars are lined up along the quiet streets, dogs bark in the distance and cicadas chirp the night song. But in a dark clearing on a slope, 200 people have gathered. It is open night at the Sutherland Shire Astronomical Society. Lured by the chance to look into space, the group has chosen to spend Saturday night outdoors gazing at the night sky.
Telescopes sprout from the dark lawn, eucalyptus trees lit up by silver moonlight. It is a clear night so it should be good viewing, maybe a planet or two, various nebulae and some star clusters. Kids, parents, grandparents and locals with an interest in astronomy are lining up for a starry view.
According to Dr Nick Lomb, curator of astronomy at the Sydney Observatory, amateur astronomy is on the rise.
“There has been a definite increase over the last few years and part of it is to do with events like the Transit of Venus and The NASA Curiosity rover.”
Increased media attention on what is happening in the night sky and the fact that people can afford to take a more active approach to astronomy has helped tremendously, he says.
Amateur astronomer Matt Smith has got a winner. His 10 inch Newtonian telescope has been a favourite all night long.
“Is that the moon? Oh, it is bright. Holy moly,” a man says peering into the eye piece.
The moon is indeed putting on a show. Every crater and crevice on its surface is visible with Matt’s telescope, while parts of the ominous dark side of the moon disappears into shadow.
Matt has been interested in astronomy ever since he did a course in high school.
“I was always wondering about the mysteries of the night sky and was fascinated with what was up there and how much there was to see.” he says.
As his interest keeps growing so does the cost of his hobby. He is now into astro-imaging, a branch of astronomy where cameras catch the brilliant colours of the universe that the human eye cannot otherwise see.
But contrary to belief, astronomy does not have to be an expensive interest.
Don Whiteman, from Bintel Telescope shop in Glebe, meets people every day with all levels of interest in astronomy, from beginners to dedicated professionals.
He says many parts of the night sky are visible to the naked eye.
“Astronomy can be as much as you want to spend, and some people will take it to that degree, especially those who are interested in astro imaging. But you can actually use binoculars to look at objects light years away.”
According to Don two important items for beginner astronomers is a planosphere, a round disc that tells you the date and time and what constellations are up there, and an almanac which details all the events in the night sky.
“Every person on the planet knows where the moon is and the astronomy almanac uses the moon as a reference point for finding things,” he says.
Back at the clubhouse of the Sutherland Astronomical Society the iron roof has opened up like a giant segmented orange. A large tubular telescope, The Selby 16”, extends a good few metres from the roof and is pointed at the night sky. It has got a lock on Saturn and although a haze is starting to set in, there is a queue of people snaking to the top of the observatory, hoping to see the rings of Saturn.
John Wilks has brought his grandson, Luke, 6, along to look at the night sky.
“I have lived around here for 40 years and never realised this society was here. But my wife saw the advertisement in the paper and we thought this would be a brilliant night out with our grandson.”
And it seems the telescopes have been a big hit with Luke who is whizzing from one telescope to the other, asking questions, curious for another look at something in the sky.
Like many visitors at the open night, Mr Wilks has had an interest in the night sky most of his life. And the recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars sparked his interest further.
“We will get a lot of potential members during open nights because they can come and see for themselves what we do here, and when there has been happenings in the night sky or events like Curiosity in the news, that really drives the interest,” says Sandy Galos, event coordinator with the Sutherland Astronomical Society.
The Society offers beginner’s courses, star parties for members, astronomy talks and camping trips to Mudgee where the night sky is spectacular. The club even offers a junior section for kids.
Lou Pugano, President of the Sutherland Astronomical Society, is proud of the organisation. It has 200 members and is “one of the most active in Australia”.
“A few years ago we spent $100,000 upgrading the facilities, and we now have one of the biggest amateur observatories in Australia. That is not bad for a small club like this.”
With more than 40 amateur astronomy associations around Australia and thousands of members both in clubs and online, it is a hobby that is here to stay. But astronomy is hardly new. The stars and night sky have fascinated humans for centuries. Greek philosopher Plato said, “Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.”
Don Whiteman, who is telescope technician and passionate amateur astronomer, agrees.
“Looking up at the night sky, what you see is the universe evolving. Even something as simple as a meteor shower can be a pretty wonderful thing. There is nothing man made about it.”
He says there is nothing better than to drive to a nice spot, set up for the night and enjoy the show.
“I have witnessed some of the greatest things that have ever happened in man’s history out in the countryside. You just sit back in a chair, maybe bring a glass of wine and some cheese, pick a part of the sky to observe and you will be saying to yourself, “how good is this.”