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Virtual Astronomy

10 October, 2011

Our studies of astronomy continued recently with an expedition to Sydney Observatory for a night viewing. We had a beautiful, sunny, 30 degree day; with clear blue skies. However, by late afternoon our clear skies had become thick, dark cloud cover. If I had’ve checked the morning weather forecast and seen the evening was going to be overcast, we could’ve postponed our visit, but it was not to be.

Instead, we got to sit in the observatory’s planetarium. It used to be a beanbag planetarium but they replaced the beanbags with comfy chairs only a few weeks beforehand. I’m sure the chairs are more practical but “beanbag planetarium” sure sounds cooler!

In the planetarium our guide, Tony, told us all about ancient cultures and their beliefs of what the stars were and how they came to be. It was really quite fascinating. An extra bonus is it inadvertently set some groundwork for our studies of ancient history for next year. We also learn about the eighty eight constellations in the sky. Did you know the Australian Aboriginal people made their constellation shapes in the sky from the spaces between the stars, rather than a connect the dots style method we traditionally use?

After our visit to the planetarium we visited the first of the two domes where the telescopes are housed. The telescope in there was built in 1864 and is one of the oldest still in use in the world – and the oldest in the southern hemisphere. Another thing that makes it extraordinary is it’s quality. Museums have a special sort of rating system to compare the quality, rarity and worth of an object. The Mona Lisa, for example, has the highest rating of a AAA. Well, believe it or not, the telescope in Sydney Observatory that we got to look through is a AAA museum artifact. It’s like saying, “I’d like to get really close to the Mona Lisa. Will you take it down from the wall for me?”. That in itself was amazing.

Due to the overcast nature of the sky, we could only look at terrestrial objects and not astronomical objects. However, we did view the clock at Balmain Town Hall and could read the time quite clearly. The telescope (at it’s current settings) was about 120-150x magnification. Tony said he’d looked through it to view Mars and was able to make out surface features and it’s polar ice caps!

We then wandered over to the other dome where we looked through a more modern telescope, this time at a flag on the Harbour Bridge. The modern computer driven telescope just didn’t have the same charm for me.

Lastly, we were able to sit in the 3D theatre and watch a few short films. The first we watched a movie about the Square Kilometre Array they are hoping to build in Australia. The amounts of data it will produce is phenomenal – and there is no computer or super computer in existence that can process that sort of data!

The second film was about the Extreme Places in our solar system. I was quite pleased that Reuben recognised Venus from the images (Zoe may have too but I wasn’t sitting next to her). Venus is the least hospitable planet in our solar system, with surface temperatures of almost 750 degrees celsius, ongoing volcanic activity and an atmospheric pressure of 90 atmospheres – 90 times more pressure than earth’s atmosphere. There were other places in the movie, but Venus stuck with me the most.

Then, it was time to go home. However, our astronomical learning didn’t stop there. A few days later, I’d booked for Zoe, Reuben and I do go inside a planetarium visiting our local library. I didn’t think we would get to see one any other time, as I wasn’t planning to go to the observatory on a cloudy day…

Despite having been in a planetarium only days before, this experience was different. Because it was a portable planetarium, instead of a permanent one, it was an inflatable dome, with a tunnel to enter by to block out all external light. There was also a lot more presentation about our solar system in general and the planets specifically, with a PowerPoint presentation projected onto one wall. We all found it quite interesting and both Zoe and Reuben asked the presenter intelligent questions at the end of our session. Since going to both presentations we’ve successfully identified the star Antares and the constellation Scorpio. We are hoping to visit an observatory again soon, on a clearer night.

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