Mankind has been turning to the night skies for centuries as an ancient method of navigation, time keeping and weather forecasting. In the 19th century, observatories such as the Melbourne Observatory in the Royal Botanical Gardens were established to scan the skies, tracking and charting stars and contributing critical data for industry use.
While modern technology has surpassed many of these traditional methods, they are a fascinating legacy of our reliance on the mystical night sky for scientific purposes and are still open today for general observation and public tours.
We had a chat with Melbourne Observatory tour guide Barry Adcock about what we can expect to discover overhead this winter.
What are the best conditions for an evening of stargazing?
Bright stars and the planets may be observed even in foggy conditions, but to observe ‘deep sky’ objects, clear, moonless conditions are needed. From a city like Melbourne, the sky glow due to lighting is a major impediment.
What can we expect to see in the night sky over winter?
The planets Mars and Saturn will be well placed for observation as well as many double stars and deep sky objects. The Milky Way will be prominent and the centre of our galaxy will be overhead in July.
Tell us a bit of the history of the Melbourne Observatory…
Melbourne Observatory was first established at Williamstown in 1853, where the primary function of the Observatory was time keeping. The accurate time of the day was conveyed to ships’ timekeepers in the bay by the timeball tower. Each day the large ball would drop down the pole at precisely 1.00 pm.
The observatory was moved to the present site in 1863 and the functions were expanded to include solar research, the photographic mapping of the southern sky in conjunction with an international program and the recording of nebulae using the Great Melbourne Telescope. Melbourne Observatory was closed as a professional establishment in 1944.
What are the most common questions people ask when they come for an informative tour?
The public asks many good questions but probably the question asked most often is about the possibility of life out there.
For a beginner learning the charts, what are the easiest things to spot in the night sky?
The planets are easy to spot because they are generally brighter than the surrounding stars. The constellations of the Southern Cross, Orion and Scorpius are easy patterns to see.
Is the night sky really a road map in the sky?
Yes. The Southern Cross with the bright star Achernar form a pattern that directly identifies true south.
When is the next big event on the astronomy calendar due?
There will be a total eclipse of the moon on 8 October. Some comets and supernovae are impossible to predict.
Best places in Australia for a spot of stargazing?
Any dark sky site away from city or town lights is suitable for viewing the night sky.
The Astronomical Society of Victoria uses the Melbourne Observatory for general observing nights and hosts regular tours in the buildings. Upcoming tours are available at rbg.vic.gov.au