Australian astronomy

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Friday, June 01, 2012

The Australian flag features the Southern Cross, surely proof that the land Down Under values its night skies.
I was out of the office quite a few days last month. My wife had to speak at a conference in Melbourne, Australia, and I wanted to go with her to show my support … and to see some of the land Down Under.

It was one of the few trips I’ve taken over the past couple of years that wasn’t astronomy (or Astronomy) related, but I still had high hopes for a stellar experience. This was, after all, a country that proudly includes the Southern Cross on its flag — surely there would be some interesting nighttime sights to see.


Melbourne’s newspaper The Age included a colorful daily feature listing the rising and setting times of the Sun, Moon, and visible planets. // Photo by Bill Andrews
My suspicions were concerned when I spotted within the pages of The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper of record (or, at least, the free one I got at my hotel), times for the rising and setting not just of the Sun and Moon, but of the naked-eye planets as well. Clearly, I was in a country that took its astronomy seriously!

I eagerly awaited my first non-jetlagged night in Australia, anxious to look up at a foreign southern sky. Alas, the weather didn’t cooperate. A thick overcast, combined with Melbourne’s light pollution, made seeing even the Full Moon difficult. Evening after evening, after a hard day of sightseeing and spousal support, I turned in vain to the skies. Nothing.

My luck changed only once, after the weeklong conference ended. Having heard about the nightly penguin parade that graces Australia’s Phillip Island, my wife and I traveled about two hours to the nearby nature park to see the activity. We were duly impressed with the cuteness and tenacity of hundreds of little penguins (the smallest and only blue-feathered penguins in the world) waddling uphill toward their burrow homes.

Little penguins are certainly cute, but they can’t compete with the majesty of the southern skies. // Photo by JJ Harrison
But as everyone gazed downward, searching out the penguins in the shadows (bright lights hurt the birds’ eyes, making the beach and surrounding fields pretty dark), I happened to look up. There, spread out before me, was the southern sky. All of it. The clouds had suddenly parted, and, with my built-up night vision, I could see the Milky Way, the Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross, a planet or two, and even some familiar constellations like Orion the Hunter. The penguins interested me no longer — for just one night, I was lost in the southern skies.

It was, you can imagine, a nice trip.

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