Guest blog: Bucket List Astronomy Tour Class — Macquarie Observatory

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Thursday, June 7, 2012

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 had an exciting couple of days in Australia with their professors, Scott Miller and C. Renee James. First up was a visit to Macquarie Observatory in Sydney for some stargazing and to witness the June 4 partial lunar eclipse. Mallory Smith, a senior majoring in family and consumer science, shares her reflections:

While at Macquarie Observatory, the BLAsT Class watched the June 4 partial lunar eclipse. At its maximum, Earth's northern umbral shadow covered about one-third of the Full Moon. Nicholas Macdonald captured this sequence during the event.
We arrived at Macquarie University, and everyone, including myself, wasn't expecting to see much in the way of spectacular star formations. After all, the weather in Sydney had been less than favorable for stargazing in the past several days, and we figured we would just be getting a class field trip out of the way. When we got to the observatory, Bob Fuller and Tony, whose last name we missed, members of the North Sydney Astronomical Society, excitedly asked us, "Would you like to see Saturn?" One of the students in our group sarcastically responded, "Yeah, yeah. We've already seen Saturn." Although we may have started this night grudgingly from the disappointing rain that day, we left Macquarie Observatory on a high of excitement and amazement for what we had just witnessed.

The weather gods apparently decided to shine down on us because the sky began to miraculously clear up to give us an absolutely beautiful night. Not only did we seeing a beautiful (upside-down) Full Moon, but I also was able to witness my first partial lunar eclipse, which is a sight in itself (this trip seems to be all about things in the solar system inserting themselves between other things!). Between times of gazing at amazing stars and cluster formations, Dr. Miller pointed out several of the southern constellations, some of which can be seen in Northern Hemisphere (like Scorpius, Leo and the other zodiacal ones) and many that were brand new to us. My favorite still has to be the Crux the Southern Cross.

We saw several astronomical objects that night, both through the telescope and with our naked eyes. The first through the telescope was the Ptolemy Cluster (M7) in Scorpius. This was very cool to see because it is at the tail end of the Scorpion, which is not easily visible to us in Northern Hemisphere because Scorpius is so close to the horizon. M7 is an open cluster with about 80 stars, and it's about 800 light-years away. Another object we saw was the star Canopus (Alpha [α] Carinae) in the constellation Carina, an object that has about 13,300 times the luminosity of the Sun. It's hard to even fathom the brightness of this star. Another thing in Carina, Eta (η) Carinae, is a binary star system with a luminous blue variable and a massive Wolf Rayet star. Bob explained that this variable was probably seen in the 1800s as it flared up, and that it probably will go supernova very soon (cosmically speaking). Through the telescope, it looked like a slightly oblong small blob.

Samantha Toback got this picture of the Crux the Southern Cross and Centaurus as the BLAst Class enjoyed observing the southern skies. Rigel Kentaurus (also known as Alpha Centauri, the Sun's nearest stellar neighbor) is near the center of the photo. Click on the picture for a better view.
After seeing these objects, we all began to get more and more excited, running back and forth between the two telescope domes, wondering what we would see next. Next we saw Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), a globular cluster 16,000 light-years away. It only appeared to look like a swarm of tiny little pinpricks in the telescope eyepiece, but Bob told us there were an astounding 10 million stars in that small cluster of "pinpricks" I was looking at!

Next was my favorite star cluster all night: the Jewel Box (NGC 4755). This was one of the most vibrant and colorful star clusters we have been able to see this entire trip. At only 6,000 light-years away, it was much easier to see than Omega Centauri and had an array of oranges, blues, white, and reds, similar to a … well, a jewel box. We also were pointed to a galaxy called the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), which from what we could see was nothing more than a small blur in the left side of the telescope eyepiece, a bit disappointing because we'd all seen the Hubble Space Telescope image of the object, which is truly epic looking. We were also able to see a carbon star — a cool, giant, old, strikingly red sun — next to the star Mimosa (Beta [β] Crucis).

One of the last things we saw that night was the Ghost of Jupiter (NGC 3242). This was a pale bluish orb in the sky that looked to me about the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil. Technically, according to Bob, it is a planetary nebula, whose color is caused by the strong emission of doubly ionized oxygen resulting from the strong ultraviolet radiation of a central hot blue dwarf star causing the gas to fluoresce. But, I am not one to be technical. I just sit back and enjoyed the beauty and purity of these natural formations in space. Several of us, despite the light pollution, were fairly convinced we saw the Large Magellanic Cloud near the horizon. This is a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way, about 160,000 light-years away and containing the mass of about 10 billion Suns. It's something we can't see at all from the Northern Hemisphere, and although the sky glow was irritating, we felt we could tick this one off from our bucket list.

Before we returned the train station, we all stood around outside the observatory - okay, some of us lay down with our heads on our backpacks — silently staring up, reveling at the beauty of the southern skies.

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