Saturday, February 2

Siding Springs

How about a trip down memory lane?  Over the years I’ve published numerous posts about my growing list of space tourism excursions.  You’ll recall I’ve visited Star City near Moscow, watched a Space Shuttle launch and clambered through the bowels of a Titan Missile silo.  The vast majority of these adventures have taken place overseas. Australia isn’t exactly the centre of space and aeronautic technology.
 
The nation does have a small handful of world class locations including the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex in Tidbinbilla, the giant radio telescope at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory and the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Siding Springs.  All three sites are located within a few hours of Sydney so it’ll come as no surprise to learn that I’ve visited all three in the last 15 years.
 
I was reminded of one such visit recently after a devastating bush fire swept through the Siding Springs area on January 13.  The media published dramatic images of a wall of orange flames rising over the Anglo-Australian optical telescope’s dazzling white dome. You can see one such photo published by the Sydney Morning Herald above.

Many feared the worst.  Exactly ten years earlier bush fires completely destroyed the Mount Stromlo observatory on the outskirts of Canberra.  At the time similar images showed flames raging around the observatory’s distinctive dome.  However, this time the news was good.  The giant 4-metre optical telescope and the nearby 1.2-m UK Schmidt Telescope at Siding Springs escaped unharmed.
 
Garry and I visited Siding Springs over a long weekend in March 2005.  I’d timed our trip to coincide with a rare public open day at the observatory. We cashed in some frequent flyer points, flew to Dubbo on a Friday morning, hired a car and spent four days exploring the area.  We based ourselves in Dubbo for the first night.  While there we explored the expansive Western Springs Zoo, where a friendly giraffe gave me a terrifying tongue link.  I’d been invited to feed it carrots by the attending zoo keeper.
 
On Saturday we drove to Coonabarabran, a small town roughly 27kms away from Siding Springs.  We attended the Open Day tours on Sunday. Garry will reluctantly admit that the experience proved more interesting than expected.  Both of us were surprised to discover that Siding Springs is actually home to almost a dozen different telescopes, most of which were open to the public.  Resident astronomers spent the day taking small groups on tours through the facilities culminating in a visit to the impressive Anglo Australian telescope.
 
The giant telescope is housed in a 26 metre high dome that sits on a remote hill on the eastern edge of the Western Plains.  It was built to provide astronomers with optical observing capabilities previously limited to the Northern Hemisphere.  The telescope was commissioned in 1974, giving eager astronomers an unrivaled ability to study phenomenon only visible in the southern sky.  This includes the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy and its nearest galactic neighbours, the Magellanic Clouds.
 
During our tour I vividly recall seeing the giant 4-metre telescope being gracefully pivoted on its equatorial mounting.  The ease with which the instrument moved was astonishing given that it weighs a staggered 260 tonnes. Our guide later explained that the telescope rarely moves in this manner.  She explained that it typically inches along, following the track of stars as they move across the night sky. It seems that the telescope’s chief engineer had decided to put on a bit of a show for the visitors. We were delighted!
 
Later that evening, Garry and I booked a night sky observation dinner in Coonabarabran. With Siding Springs nearby, many of the town’s residents are employed by the observatory.  As a result, Coonabarabran boosts a number of impressive amateur telescopes and knowledgeable astronomers.  We spent a fascinating evening at the local Warrumbungle Observatory viewing Jupiter, Saturn and the Moon’s cratered surface.

The final day of our vacation was spent back in Dubbo touring the city's infamous goal and the underworld delights of the Wellington Caves, located about 40 minutes south.  The caves proved particularly interesting.  We joined the Cathedral cave tour which takes visitors past a breath-taking 15-metre high 'Altar', a magnificent combination of boulders, flowstone and stalagmites covered in glittering crystal calcite.  However, for me, the real highlight was an opportunity to handle fossilised bones miners had extracted from neighbouring mine shafts.

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