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Viewing the Southern Skies at OzSky Star Safari


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Viewing the Southern Skies at OzSky Star Safari

 

Viewing the southern skies in either South Africa, Chile, New Zealand, or Australia is aspirational for many CNers. The iconic southern objects like Centaurus A, Omega Cen, 47 Tuc, and the Eta Carinae nebula are on many of our life lists. The questions then become, where should I go and where should I stay? Do I transport or rent a scope? Do I hire an astronomy guide? My answer to these questions was to attend the OzSky Star Safari. OzSky took a 3-year hiatus during the covid pandemic, and 2023 was the first post-covid OzSky. There was a lot of excitement about it, and some of this year’s participants had signed up for OzSky 2020 and waited until now to attend. What follows is a short travelogue of my experience.

OzSky is a telescopes-provided star party outside a remote national park near the town of Coonabarabran, New South Wales. It is hosted by the experienced, knowledgeable, and helpful volunteers of the non-profit 3Rivers Foundation. Basically, you spend a week looking at dark southern hemisphere skies through 18-25 inch Obsession dobsonians, as well as some miscellaneous viewing devices, with the help of locals who know the skies and take care of these scopes throughout the year. All you have to do is show up with a good attitude, a pair of binoculars, an observing wish list, and maybe some of your favorite filters.

 

Group photo prior to first night’s viewing.

 

After a 5.5 hr drive from Sydney with navigation help from another OzSky participant, I arrived at Warrumbungles Mountain Hotel, between the town of Coonabarabran and Warrumbungles National Park. My roommates had just awakened and showered. They had arrived a night early and observed most of the night (Jim) and all night (Mark) the night before. This would be a theme for Mark who observed until sunrise every clear night and went to bed at dawn, sleeping until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. This is a good plan, but I couldn’t follow it, as you will see. I unpacked, walked the grounds, went to orientation, had dinner, and then got ready for observing. Waiting for darkness on the first night felt like a kid waiting for Christmas. As the light faded, we all got excited when the LMC and then the SMC appeared.

 

My roommates and I hiking in Warrumbungles National Park. It rained the night before, so we all had a good night’s sleep. Take off your sun hats before pictures!

First night was very good – clear skies, decent seeing, good transparency. The MW was stunning. We sampled the most famous eye candy, scanned the sky with binoculars, rode in the Fujinon 25 X 150 binocular chair, and tried out the different scopes. I observed with a lot of different groups and saw 25 objects on my 60-object southern sky wish list. I was tired from the drive and still jet-lagged, so I went in at 1:30am and slept until the Kookaburras woke me up at 6:30. Then I walked the grounds with binoculars and looked at and listened to birds. Took Jim to breakfast at Cardian’s Cafe in Coona, and then went grocery-shopping. Went back to sleep about 10am. Spent the afternoon at lectures – John Bambury (southern highlights), Andrew Murrell (tips on horror objects), and Gary Kopff (operating an Argo Navis). We then enjoyed the OzSky barbecue of steaks, sausages, macaroni salad, and green salad. Then on to the second night of observing, which seemed even more exciting than the first.

The second night was spectacular as the transparency was significantly better than the night before. Observed until 2am and then crashed. The average number of clear nights at OzSky is 5. I think everyone worries they will come the year it rains all week. For me, the minimum worthwhile number of nights was two. I had those after the first two nights, so everything else was gravy.  I think it’s natural at OzSky to spend time worrying about the weather forecast. We ended up getting 6 nights of observing. On one of those nights, we were chasing clear spots around the sky as banks of clouds passed by. One night it poured all night long. We still set alarms to check the skies twice during the night, hoping the storm would pass before dawn.

I went hiking, either at Warrumbungles National Park or Pilliga Sandstone Caves, on four of the six non-travel days. The eucalyptus forests and volcanic terrain at Warrumbungles National Park are gorgeous, and there are lots of interesting birds and plants. Of course you will see kangaroos and wallabies. Some OzSky participants saw wombats and even found an echidna (I did not, sadly). The Warrumbungles Mountain Motel is nice, clean, and functional, but the grounds are spectacular, basically a large park next to a river. It's beautiful. Because of the unseasonal heat, we were warned not to go in the brush by the river - active venomous snakes. You can see lots of different birds on the motel grounds. If you like hiking and birding, you are going to have trouble getting enough sleep at OzSky. For me, sleeping was opportunistic and included a lot of naps.

 

Warrumbungles National Park.

 

I really wasn’t prepared for the beauty and sounds of Australian bird life. From movies and pictures, we all have a fairly accurate view of what rural eastern Australia looks like - eucalyptus forests, brown grasslands, cows and sheep, odd-looking hills, and small dusty towns. What you don't know from movies is how loud sunrise and sunset is. The bird song and calls are crazy. Kookaburas sounding like a pack of howling and chattering monkeys. They woke me up like an alarm clock every morning at dawn! Cockatoos flying over and screeching. Australian magpies sounding like haunted mournful pipe organs. Parrots cackling. Small birds chirping everywhere. It's like Disney bird kingdom. I didn't know there would be all these colorful parrots and lorikeets here. The cockatoos are REALLY BIG. In Sydney’s parks you can watch enormous flying fox bats foraging in the magnolia trees in the evening (Thanks Joe!).

 

Viewing Highlights:

The first two nights the hosts provided a great tour of the southern skies. After the first night and the beginning of the second, people broke out into small groups working at one telescope and focusing on different types of objects. When one group found something particularly interesting, they would call out an invitation for others to come see. We all ended up with somewhat different observing lists for the week, but with a lot of commonalities. Here are some of my highlights.

Face-on galaxies!  I rarely get sky darkness and transparency sufficient to see detail on face-on galaxies, except for M51, so it was great to see face-on detail with direct vision. Dark skies and good transparency revealed detail on M83. It was unexpectedly large, with complex, asymmetric spirals. Beautiful. I would have gladly stared at it for 20 minutes if people weren’t waiting at the ladder. The Antlia spiral, 2997, was similarly bright and detailed, if not as large. On the first night I got to see 1365 in Fornax in the 25”, and the bar and the wings were bright in direct vision, amazing for a galaxy 56M LY away.

Edge-on Galaxies. My personal highlight was 1532, Haley’s Coronet in Eridanus. This is a large, bright, edge-on galaxy with interesting details and a dark lane but what makes it most interesting is an interacting elliptical galaxy located just above the central bulge as well as two dim offset satellite galaxies. There is an incredible amount of detail for a galaxy 50 M light years away. 4945 in Cen was also a highlight – a bright, large, thick, edge-on galaxy with lots of complexity, similar to but brighter and larger than the whale galaxy. This is in the M83/Cen A group, and it is about 13M light years away, so it’s apparent size and detail are not surprising. The Meathook (2442 in Volans, 50M LY away) was a very cool twisty thing we viewed with a 25”. I could have looked at it a long time, but there was a line behind me! M104 was beautiful, and the dark dust lane was distinct, but it wasn’t that much better than it is at home on a good night.

Weird galaxies and galaxy groups. Centaurus A looked just like the photographs! The dark lanes and the lettuce were crisp and clear, and the galaxy itself is huge. This was one of my favorite objects of the week. I returned to it several times. The first night I got to see the Leo Triplet in a 25, and I’ve never seen the hamburger galaxy with so much detail. The details of the “hamburger,” including the lettuce, have always seemed aspirational to me, but here they were obvious, and it became the most interesting member of the group.

The LMC. The LMC is LARGE, much bigger than I imagined and more interesting than I expected. It is full of complexity and knots. You could spend a week on the LMC alone. The Fujinon 25x150 robotic chair was superb for scanning and understanding the LMC, SMC, and Milky Way. You could immediately pick out the star-forming regions, the dense open clusters, the dark lanes, and the globular clusters. The binocular chair provided a detailed map of our neighbor dwarf galaxies. The star of the LMC is the Tarantula nebula, but the Tarantula nebula is surrounded by dense star fields, emission nebulae, and open clusters. It is a large region of multiple gorgeous objects. The Tarantula itself is a stunning complex of large tendrils of gas with crazy topography. Color in the Tarantula is obvious. The topography is enhanced by UHC and OIII filters. In 14” of aperture and above, it has a three-dimensionality that looks better at the eyepiece than it does in photographs. If you put an OIII filter on it, it looks like a carnivorous fish coming out of space to eat you.

The SMC. Radio astronomy suggests that the SMC is elongated and we are looking at one of the ends. The SMC might be an irregular barred spiral, but we can’t really tell. We can see individual stars and open clusters within the SMC and we can see multiple star-forming regions. It has a nice globular cluster, NGC 121, which astronomers believe is actually a MW GC that has been captured by the SMC. The SMC also has a large and impressive emission nebula, NGC 346, that is naked-eye visible. After listening to Andrew Murrell’s lecture on the SMC, we (Michael and I plus other people from the seminar) used the unguided 20” to scan and observe all the major features of the SMC.

Southern Milky Way. The Milky Way here is mesmerizing. I would often just sit and stare at it with bare eyes and scan it with my binoculars. With binoculars, dozens of open clusters and knots of nebulosity are apparent, and the dark lanes and blobs are distinct. On Sunday night, when the transparency was really good, the Milky Way looked like a long-exposure photograph to the naked eye. Eta Carinae (the star and the nebula) jump to the naked eye. In a large telescope, the brightness and detail in the nebula are unbelievable, better than JWST photographs. In the eyepiece, you see three-dimensionality with nooks, crannies, caverns, and canyons all through the complex. The nebula complex is much, much bigger than a single field of view, and you can pan around in widening circles, and the nebulosity goes on and on. One could stare at it for many hours. The star Eta Carinae is a Wolf-Rayet with an elongated bright-orange gas/dust cloud called the Homonculus.

It's interesting to know what the MW looks like below our summer horizon. Now I will never look at it without thinking of the Emu below the horizon. I will also think of the LMC when Canopus makes its brief winter appearance.

Dark nebulae. Wow, the dark lanes and blobs in the MW are gorgeous. The “Emu” really does look like an Emu, and it stretches a quarter of the way across the sky.

Globular Clusters. Everybody knows that Omega Cen and 47 Tucanae are much larger and brighter than any globular cluster visible in the northern hemisphere, but you really can’t get your mind around how much bigger and brighter until you actually see them in a scope. They are both mind-blowing, and they fill the FOV with resolvable stars. They are both easy naked eye objects. I still love M13, M5, and M3, but they are decidedly less grand than Omega Cen and 47 Tuc.

Oddities. We observed “the pencil” in the Vela Supernova Remnant, and it was very cool, but we didn’t know that there are a lot of other pieces that can be observed. The VSR is the southern equivalent of the Veil nebula, but the veil is brighter and easier to observe, while the VSR is larger, dimmer, and has more pieces.

Thanks to a borrowed h-beta filter and a guide, I saw the Horsehead nebula! Now that I have identified it, I’m pretty sure I have seen it before without realizing what it was. It looks like a bay in a straight shoreline of nebulosity, and it is bigger than I expected. I also saw Ruby Crucis, which was the reddest star I’ve ever seen.

On a night of excellent seeing, we “split the Pup” meaning we saw the dwarf companion to Sirius. The seeing was so good that the dwarf companion was easy. I apologize to the many double star observers who have suffered many frustrating and fruitless attempts to split the Pup. 

Planetary Nebulae. On a night with good seeing and mediocre transparency, another OzSky participant and I focused on hitting most of the available planetaries: Cleopatra’s Eye, Ghost of Jupiter (3242), Eskimo (2392), 8 burst, Spiral (5189), Bug, Thor’s helmet, Ghost of the Ring (6337 SCO), IC 418, 3699 CEN, 4361 Corvus. We didn’t get them all in one night, but I picked up the rest the next two nights. I can see a lot of these at home, but they are much better in dark skies and good seeing. Enjoyed particularly interesting and detailed views of the 8Burst, Spiral, Bug, and Ghost of Jupiter. Had a very detailed and high contrast view of Thor’s helmet in the 20” with an OIII filter. I really like the variety of planetary nebulae, and we had a great mix of familiar and new PNs to examine.

Top Ten Most Beautiful Objects Observed at OzSky? (Is it possible to chose?):

 

1. Eta Carinae nebula – an object that is far better in the eyepiece than in photographs.

2. Tarantula nebula – another object that is far better in the eyepiece than in photographs.

3. 47 Tucanae – Globular clusters get their close up!

4. Omega Cen – Globular cluster or dwarf galaxy core? Crazy big and dense.

5. Centaurus A – The weirdest galaxy! Apparently a giant elliptical that was bisected during a collision with a large spiral galaxy. Looks just like the photographs.

6. NGC 1365 – Great barred galaxy in Fornax. Superman’s S in the sky.

7. NGC 1532 – Haley’s Coronet – a bright and detailed edge-on galaxy with an elliptical hat.

8. M83 – Massive face-on complex spiral that gives up details in dark skies

9. Spiral planetary (5189). Unlike any other PN I have seen.

10. The Pencil – brightest portion of the Vela Supernova Remnant.

10a, and 10b.  The LMC itself and the Emu dark nebula

 

It takes a couple days to get oriented in the southern sky. Your familiar constellations along the celestial equator are upside-down; the sky seems to spin the wrong way; and there is no pole star!

 

Tips on packing

The days are warm to hot, the sun is strong, and the nights are cool, as is the small swimming pool, so you need to have clothes for mild winter observing as well as shorts, t-shirts, a bathing suit, and sandals for summer. I would often nap by the pool in the afternoon. There is a washer and dryer at the motel, along with a number of clothes lines. In the dry air, clothes dry quickly on the line. As far as astronomy equipment goes, I was very glad I brought my OIII filter and that my roommate brought an h-beta filter. I also enjoyed having a pair of binoculars. My roommate brought a small refractor which he shared with others for wide field views. I suggest bringing a tripod for whatever camera you are bringing, at least a phone tripod. Andrew Murrell will give a nice tutorial on shooting the Milky Way, and you want to be prepared to try out his tips.

 

Lunch stop in Merriwa on the road to Coonabarabran.

 

Summary

To recap, OzSky provides a fabulous fall (March or April) astronomy camp under dark clear skies in an idyllic setting with gracious and personable hosts, daytime lectures, photography seminars, opportunities for great hiking and birding, and a convenient and comfortable place to stay. One of the hosts is a well-known source of good advice on CN. The enthusiasm among all the participants was infectious. I soaked up a lot of knowledge from several very experienced observers. OzSky is run very professionally, and the hosts provide all the information you need before you go. The southern sky is as amazing as it is cracked up to be, and I’m really glad I got to explore it. I also had fun in Sydney before and after OzSky. I’m six feet one inch tall and fidgety, so I despise long plane flights. For this reason I assumed OzSky would be a one-time thing for me. However, before I landed back in the States, I was already thinking about going back.

The couple that run the motel are delightful, and they serve a good meal every night at a very reasonable price, with a selection of local beers. The town of Coonabarabran has several nice cafes, two grocery stores, a library, a bakery that serves amazing Aussie hand pies, and a few restaurants. The rooms in the motel all have kitchenettes and a grill top outside the room. The observing field has hot water every night with instant coffee and tea bags, and one of the volunteers often brings out frozen Tim Tams (you will have to look that up). It is a relatively luxurious remote astronomy experience!

OzSky is run by volunteers, and putting on the event is a lot of work. I worry that the hosts will burn out one day. I don’t think we can count on OzSky running in perpetuity, so if you want to go, I wouldn’t hold off, but please don’t take the spot I want!

 

Grounds of the Warrumbungles Mountain Hotel.

 

Author bio.  Rhett Jackson is a visual observer who enjoys viewing DSOs through a 16” dob, a C8, and a small refractor. He lives in Athens GA and visits Deerlick Astronomy Village and the Okefenokee Swamp to get dark East Coast skies. He’s always on the lookout for convenient, high, and dark places to observe in the southeastern US. He has been a naked eye and binocular observer since childhood, but regrets not getting a telescope until covid!


  • Jim T, nof and LBW@WC like this


4 Comments

Thanks for that report. My wife and I are already signed up for next March. We're excited!

    • rjacks likes this

I was there in 2014.  My wife and I plan to go back in the (northern hemisphere) Fall of 2024 to see the other side of the sky.

    • rjacks likes this

I might try for the 2024 OzSky alumni event if work allows. Once was not enough!

Photo
ausastronomer
Aug 09 2023 01:07 AM

Hi Rhett,

 

That was an excellent, very detailed and comprehensive write up.  Glad you enjoyed yourself on this trip and looking forward to seeing you back down here again soon !

 

We are all very happy that we were able to get Ozsky going again after COVID.

 

Cheers

    • rjacks likes this


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