August 30, 2018

Stargazing at Warrumbungle National Park

Growing up my mom would take my sister and me to the local Augustana College observatory for an annual Christmas show, as well as random telescope viewings they would put on during the year. I have a clear memory of seeing Saturn’s rings through a telescope (which is amazing). At the time, I’m sure my sister and I complained relentlessly about being dragged to the observatory, and now, I hit up any observatory I come across during my travels. I absolutely love telescope viewings and unfortunately, they seem harder and harder to come by.

View from our camping spot in Warrumbungle National Park
So when Bean came to visit, I planned a little excursion to Coonabarabran for some epic stargazing. Coonabarabran is the astronomy capital of Australia! Due to the altitude and the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere, the area has prime conditions for star nerds. The national park outside of Coonabarabran, Warrumbungle National Park, has been declared a dark sky park which regulates the outdoor lighting in and around the park, making the stargazing conditions even better. Because of these factors, there are numerous observatories in the area offering nightly tours.  

On our last day in Sydney, Bean and I picked up our Britz campervan to take us from Sydney to Melbourne. My pit stop in Coonabarabran, six hours northwest of Sydney was 100% out of the way. After picking up Glenn (our trusty van) we headed out on what would end up being a 7+ hour drive, all for a ninety-minute telescope session… only to turn around the next morning and drive right back. So there was a lot riding on this tour. If it wasn’t spectacular Bean was probably going to smother me in my sleep in the back of Glenn.

En route to Coonabarabran, I booked our tickets for the night show held at Warrumbungle Observatory. Yep. Bean had started a six-hour drive and I didn't even have a tour booked. ๐Ÿ˜‚When the sun started to set, it became very apparent we weren't going to make the 7PM start time. The last hour or so of the drive had kangaroo crossing signs every few kilometers. Let me tell you, kangaroos on the side of the road are no joke. They'll total your car and potentially jump through your windshield. So being the safe driver she in, Bean took Glenn down a notch and we coasted into Warrumbungle Observatory a solid 15 minutes late. I originally thought we'd be the only nerds in attendance but when we pulled up there were at least ten other cars in the yard. We scrambled in the dark up to the presentation area, apologized for being late, and took the last two chairs set out. Five minutes later, after our eyes had adjusted to the dark, it was very apparent this viewing was going to be awesome. The sky was so clear I could see the Milky Way from my chair. 

The Milky Way as seen with the naked eye.
After a short presentation on different star clusters and an overview of a few things we would see that night, the astronomer starting setting up the five telescopes for our first viewing. Yep, five telescopes! Most observatories I've been to have one telescope. So having the opportunity to view through five was amazing. The telescopes were adjusted three or four times, so we saw so much more than we had anticipated. Guys, we saw the black hole on Jupiter! Seriously, how amazing is that? We also saw numerous star clusters and the brightest start in the sky, which gave off a red color. We also saw two different star nebulae - the beginnings of a new star!

And the best part of the night? At the end of the viewing session, the astronomer offered to take photos with guests' SLR cameras attached to the telescope! The below photographs were taken on my Nikon D3400 through the computer operated telescope! My inner and outer nerd were freaking out! Just to blow your mind a little bit... the telescope counter-rotates against the Earth's rotation, at the same speed. That allows the stars in the viewfinder to stay in the same position (the Earth moves, stars don't), which makes it possible to shoot long exposure photos on the telescope! I'm sure that functionality is for the benefit of just using the telescope, but the dual purpose is great! ๐Ÿ˜ƒ

Orion Nebula • Tarantula Nebula
The first photo on the left is the star nebula found in the Orion constellation! The nebula is found halfway down the sword. The pink represents massive amounts of Hydrogen. I nearly cried with excitement when I saw how awesome that photo turned out... on my cameraGuys, science is so cool, we just aren't worthy. 

We got to chatting with the astronomer when he was setting up my camera and it turned out he was from Kansas,
 in Australia for a working holiday like myself. After my Orion photo was done, I pressed my luck to see if he'd set up another view for us.๐Ÿค”At this point, Bean and I were the only ones still there.

I must have been nice that day, or the kid is filled with Midwest charm because he took the time to show us the Tarantula nebula again. And people, this nebula is in another galaxy! Yep, I have photos on my camera of stars in a different galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy to be exact. Goodbye Milky Way and hello deep space! 

Following the tour, we drove deeper into the pitch black Warrumbungle National park to find a camp spot. After we parked and got ready for bed I set up my camera to snap a few more long exposure shots of the millions of stars overhead. The first two shots were taken then - again the Milky Way was just floating overhead. I've never seen so many stars.

So it is safe to say, the 7-hour detour was 100% worth the trip. I would say this was probably my favorite thing we did during Bean's visit, and one of my most memorable excursions in Australia. I highly recommend this place to anyone visiting the New South Wales area. Love live the nerds!


  1. I loved our trips to Augustana, especially the times we got to “stay late” to see more stuff.