The Bucket List Astronomy Tour (BLAsT) Class, a group of 10 Sam Houston State University undergraduate students on a journey to witness some of the best astronomical events of a lifetime, has been taking in lectures and keeping busy in Australia as they gear up for today's transit of Venus. Before the event that brought them Down Under, though, they had the opportunity to spend an evening at Sydney Observatory. Megan Willmore, a 21-year-old English major, was kind enough to share her refelctions:
Sydney Observatory is now a working museum where visitors can observe through a modern 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and a historic 11.4-inch refractor telescope built in 1874. // photo by C. Renee James
Going to the observatory in Sydney definitely helped me appreciate our round planet even more. At the beginning of our visit, one of the public outreach experts showed us a video about the universe discussing how it is “bigger than big." Everyone from our class was pretty excited to have already learned most of the material from our classes, and we were all proud of our ability to recall the information on command.
Our guide taught us how to find the South Celestial Pole, which, just like everything else on this trip, was much different from what I was expecting. Finding Polaris seems easy to me, so I was just expecting for there to be an equivalent star in the southern skies. However, as I said before, Australia has had much satisfaction in shattering my expectations, which I love! To locate the South Celestial Pole, one first has to locate the constellation Crux, better known as the Southern Cross. After that, measure four and a half lengths of the pointers from the Cross to an open space of sky south of the Cross. That open piece of space is the South Celestial Pole!
The BLAsT Class has been holding lecture classes at Sydney University, thanks to the folks at the International House. Here's one of the iconic buildings on campus. // photo by C. Renee James
The next part of the tour took place in the planetarium, which I was looking forward to the most because most of the reason I wanted to come to Sydney was to see the constellations in the southern sky, which has been tough to experience so far because it has been so cloudy and rainy. It was so cool seeing the constellations from another hemisphere. Our professors told us that the constellations would be upside-down, but that didn’t hit me until I actually saw it at the planetarium. Orion is my favorite constellation, and it was so crazy seeing him hunting on his head. The astronomer teaching us told us that the aboriginals saw Orion as a canoe and that the people in Australia now see him as a shopping cart. It’s definitely tough for a die-hard fan of Orion the Hunter to try to see him as a shopping cart! However, it was such a treat to exchange perspectives and to laugh at our differences and appreciate how each hemisphere saw the skies. Orion is that much more special to me now.
It's difficult to wrap our brains around the fact that it's 95° at home in Huntsville, Texas, while the autumn leaves are spectacular in Sydney, Australia. // photo by Megan Willmore
After that we got to go to the telescope, and despite the thick cloud cover, there were a few breaks through which we could see some things. We had just seen Saturn at Lowell Observatory, so when our guide told us that was what we were seeing first, I wasn’t that excited. But then it dawned on me that I was in the Southern Hemisphere and that it would be different this time. When I got to the telescope and saw that even Saturn looked upside-down, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I asked my professors if I was just remembering Saturn wrong or if it seriously looked upside-down to me, and they just laughed and told me that I was right. It was amazing.
We also got to take a look at the Moon and, lo and behold, even our good old Mr. Moon had his craters all flipped around. I knew before this trip that the skies would look different from what I’d seen in the United States, but it blew my mind actually experiencing it in person. I don’t think I’ll ever see the sky the same again, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
Saturday saw a trip to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where visitors can cuddle a koala. And, as BLAsT Class professor C. Renee James points out, they're made of 'starstuff,' so it was an astronomical visit. // photo by C. Renee James