University Lowbrow Astronomers

A Trip Down Under.

by Bob Gruszczynski
Printed in Reflections: November, 2002.

May was a hectic month, capped off with yet another short-notice trip out of town.  While I was on assignment out of the office locally, a fire raged at our customer’s site in Australia.  The usual support folks were on vacation, and since I’m usually the “goto guy” for fires of all kinds, I got the “You’re leaving for Australia on Sunday, make arrangements” speech on Thursday.  Fortunately, immediate thoughts of the Southern Cross, Omega Centaurus, etc. displaced the “you know where you can put that ticket” thoughts, and I was winging my way west and south.

The plan was to book for two weeks and if things got wrapped up sooner, I could always shorten it up.  The business details actually took a week and a half, with the extra half-week to make sure that things were totally up to snuff.  Good thing, too, because, as you may have noticed, bad weather has a tendency to follow me around a bit.  I had two weeks of pretty poor astronomy weather.  Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on the view of the day) I was doing some pretty long hours to pin down the problem that my customer was seeing.  It would not have left much time for astronomy anyway.

Now, I have been reticent to carry my ETX-70 onto an airplane after 9/11 (let alone into an airport security zone) even though things do go better as a business traveler.  My plan was to see what was available for purchase in Australia, knowing that I would probably end up giving it away at the end of the trip.  When the astronomy weather stayed so bad, I stopped looking for serious equipment, but found a really good pair or 7x50 binoculars for AUD$65 which translates to about US$35.  I was prepared, just in case there was a night of good seeing.

It was Fall outside of Melbourne on the southern Australian coast, much like Fall here.  Peeks of sunshine followed by periods of rain.  When clear, the sky was amazingly blue, like the western US.  When it rained, it reminded me of my time in central England, outside of London, drab and dreary.  And, as anywhere, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.  Two weeks to the day from when I received my marching orders, the skies turned a bright clear blue and looked like they actually wanted to stay that way.  I had my last meeting with a very happy customer and I headed out the door for my ten minute drive to the Hotel.  It was 6:00 PM.

I had a quiet dinner in a sushi bar close to the hotel and next to a very nice (but well lit) park.  There was no fog on the bay, this was looking promising.  I finished dinner and walked outside to be instantly greeted by a sky full of stars.  WOW!!!  I had had some keyhole peeks at the night sky earlier in the trip and I was kind of getting used to the Ozzy sky, but with all of its blazing glory, it was pretty overwhelming, and, quite frankly, UPSIDE DOWN!  It took a while to get my bearings, seeing Leo and Virgo in the north and kind of out-of-whack.  No Big Dipper to arc and spike, but I did manage to find Spica.  They were already low in the northern sky and not really in a position to go galaxy hunting with a pair of 7x50’s.  Then I looked up, and almost fell down.  A very different view of the Milky Way.  From the park I spent some time searching for the SMC, LMC, and 47 Tucana, but I had real difficulty orienting myself with the sky and trying to see through the surrounding artificial light.  I would find out later that Dorado and Tucana were both setting fast in the direction of the Geelong city lights.

Earlier in the trip, during a “keyhole moment” at the Hotel, I found that the balcony of my Hotel room was pretty well shielded from a lot of the artificial light.  At this point I decided that the balcony was where I would spend the night observing.  I made my way back to the Hotel, pulled one of the overstuffed side chairs out to the balcony and set to work.  I brought my copy of David Levy’s Skywatching with me and the latest copies of Sky & Tel.  It was around 8:30.  I looked up and immediately found the Crux, the Southern Cross.  Hey, there’s a star missing!  Oops, the “false cross”, an interesting asterism formed by two stars in Vela and two stars in Carina.  Cool!

Well, Carina was a great place to start.  I started with Eta Carinae, and NGC 3372, the EC nebula, along with NGC 3324, the Keyhole, a dark nebula inside 3372.  Very beautiful, certainly on par with Orion and the Lagoon, in my opinion.  Next was a beautiful open cluster NGC 3532.  Do you mean this isn’t the Jewel Box, oh my.  But, wait, what’s this?  IC 2602, the Southern Pleiades as I found out later, another beautiful open cluster.  Just scanning the sky reveals so much beauty.  10:15, time for a break.  Wake up at 11:00, it’s a bit chilly out here, but not too bad, grab some covers off of the bed & wrap up.

Wow!  There’s the real Cross.  I found somewhere on the web the number of countries with this star grouping on their flag, and it is somewhat over ten.  I can see why.  And, what a contrast between the real Jewel Box and the Coal Sack.  Bright vs dark.  Awesome.  The Jewel Box is very colorful and the contrasting stars are impressive. Hmmm, Centaurus must be somewhere around here.  Oh, straight up, it’s on the Zenith.  Now, where’s this.....Omega.......Cent........Hercules who??  WOW!!!  In the 7x50’s it looks like M13 does in my ten-inch.  This thing is huge!  Absolutely amazing.  Just panning around this part of the sky for a while makes great viewing.  But wait, eyelids getting heavy, must stay awake, gather photonzzzzz.  Woke up again at 2:00.

Wow!  Here comes the rest of the Milky Way, albeit backwards.  There’s Scorpius and Sagittarius, and more stars than you can shake a long focal length refractor at.  I spent three more hours scouring the Scorp/Sag/Scutum sky.  The list includes the usual suspects:

M4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 54, 55, 62, 69, 70

NGC oh, the heck with it, every nebula and star cluster I could sweep up in the 7x’s I saw.  I finally went to bed around 5:00.  Up at 8:00 to go into the office for the last time before heading to Melbourne for my final night’s stay.  What an awesome night of observing.  I visited what I would consider the most beautiful areas of the Milky Way.  I hope to get far enough south again to view these wonderful sights, and I hope that all of you get to do the same!!


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