My lifelong dream had been seeing and observing the marvelous southern sky, to see the southern Milky way, Magellanic clouds, Coalsack and all other wonders of the southern sky! That dream finally became reality, when I was able to travel to Australia to see the southern sky in August 2019!
Background to my trip
Observing the southern sky had been my lifelong dream already since the early days of my astronomy hobby in the early -00’s. I had already seen some of the southern sky from Tenerife in autumn of 2015 and spring of 2016. During those trips I was able to complete the Messier catalogue and to observe some objects further south. But of course those trips to Tenerife only fueled my passion to see the far southern sky even more!
When talking about the night sky, proverb “the grass is greener in the other side of the fence” is very much true! For some reason, the best part of the night sky and Milky way are visible only from Southern hemisphere. There it is possible to see the best parts of the Milky way, Magellanic clouds, Coalsack, Keyhole nebula, 47 Tucanae and many other wonders of the starry skies! From Finland it is not possible to see these objects, and even the center of Milky way is below horizon (although it can be seen from southern Europe), but in the southern hemisphere Milky way is visible directly in the zenith at it’s best!
I traveled to Australia with my girlfriend Linda, who was with me also in Tenerife and who is also an astronomy enthusiast wanting to see the southern skies!
Timing of the trip
We choose to travel to Australia in the latter half of August. We choose this time mostly because of social reasons like work etc., but also because of wanting to make sure that we can observe all the objects we wanted, and also of course phase of the Moon. During the first week of the trip, phase of the Moon was too large, but during the latter week, the Moon wasn’t there interfering the deep sky observations anymore, so we did our astronomy part of our trip then. We spent the first week of the trip in Sydney to see the city and some of it’s main attractions.
August may not be the best possible time to observe the sky in Australia, because some of the important constellations (like Carina) are either setting or rising, but we had to choose August because that was practically our only window of opportunity to travel to Australia because of work and other obligations. Nevertheless, all the most important objects would be observable in August! Milky way would be in zenith in early evening, and Magellanic clouds would be well visible in the late evening and early morning. Despite some constellations were low or below horizon during my trip, I was anyway able to observe all the important objects I had wanted to observe! I wasn’t able to observe some objects in Carina, Vela and Puppis, because they were below horizon though. Those constellations would have been visible in the morning, but I didn’t try to observe those constellations then, because I had to also sleep sometimes.
Perhaps the optimal time to observe the night sky in Australia would be for example between March and May, because then it would be possible to observe easily all important objects during one night. Time between November and January would not be good time, because the Sun is then in Sagittarius, and the center of Milky way would not thus be visible.
Choosing the destination
In the southern hemisphere there are three possible continents from where it would be possible to observe the southern sky: southern part of South America, southern part of Africa, and Oceania, where you would have to choose between Australia and New Zealand. Why not some extreme traveler could also try to observe the southern sky from Antarctica! But of a mainstream traveler like us would have to choose from first three options.
Each of the continents is different, and each of them would have their pros and cons. In South America, you could consider Argentina and Chile. Both countries, especially Chile would be a very astro-friendly place with good climate and almost 365 clear nights every year. But in Chile you couldn’t take it for granted that they speak English everywhere, and there has been also some civil unrest recently. In southern Africa, possible destinations could be countries like Namibia and Republic of south Africa. There is a somewhat established scene of astrotourism especially in Namibia, but both of these countries, especially the latter one are not very safe places for a casual tourist. So we have one continent left: Oceania! In Oceania, we would have to choose between Australia and New Zealand. Both of these countries would be equally good: both are English-speaking safe and western countries! Of these two countries, Australia would be more attractive for us, because of astro-friendly climate and several good locations where to choose from and because of the nature and many other interesting places. Also some of my astronomy friends have been there observing, and they all had very good experiences there!
In Australia there would be several possible locations where to choose from: western-, eastern, southern or central areas of the country. In west, there would be town called Geraldton, where one of my astronomy friends Timo Karhula has an apartment that we could have rented, in east there would be Sydney and Coonabarabran, the Astronomy capital of Australia. In the center there would be the vast arid lands of the Outback with especially dark skies, but it would be far away from any major city. In the south there would be for example Tasmania, but possibly the climate there wouldn’t be as good as in some other places of Australia.
Eventually we choose to travel to east, because there would be Sydney and Australia’s astronomy capital Coonabarabran, which would be easily accessible from Sydney, which itself is of course very interesting place to see!
So we traveled to Sydney via Singapore in mid August, and we spent the first week of our trip in Sydney to see the city and some of it’s major attractions. After our week in Sydney, we took a flight from Sydney to a small town of Dubbo, from where we rented a car to continue our trip by driving to Coonabarabran.
In Coonabarabran, our chosen place for observing and to reside was Warrumbungle Mountains Motel couple of kilometers west from the Coonabarabran town. This place is a home to annual star party called Oz Sky Fest, so it can’t be very poor place for astronomy! Also one of my astronomy friends, Fay Johnson, has attended the Oz Sky Fest and she recommended that place very much. Also the famous Siding Spring observatory is near the place, and it’s known fact that large observatories like this aren’t built in astronomy-wise poor places! There was also a Solar system model around Coonabarabran, where the Siding spring was as the Sun.
Night sky and observing conditions in Coonabarabran
Coonabarabran is a small town of about 2500 inhabitants located about 400 km NW from Sydney. The town is known as the Astronomy Capital of Australia, and it is home to famous Siding Spring Observatory, Oz Sky Fest star party, Solar system model and many private observatories and it is known for it’s established astrotourism and dark skies.
My expectations were high when we arrived in Coonabarabran, and I wasn’t disappointed! The night sky there is truly amazing and magnificent, and Milky way was visible straight in the zenith in early evening! The sky was very dark, and SQM readings were as good as 21.90 at it’s darkest!
During our stay in Coonabarabran, the sky was clear every night, and air was dry, so there wasn’t any humidity problem! In August it’s still winter in Australia with daily maximum around 20 C degrees and nightly lowest around -1 or -2. I was aware that August is still a winter month in Australia, and I was expecting rather low temperatures, but still it was a bit surprisingly chilly during the nights! On the other hand, as a Finn I find it kind of entertaining, that people there in Down under talk about winter because in Finland we have lots of snow and temperatures as cold as -30 to -40! In Australia, snow is rare, and the all times lowest temperature in Coonabarabran is about -6 C degrees.
Wonders of the southern sky
The southern sky is a true treasure house of magnificent wonders of the sky. The grass is really greener in the other side! For example, our own galaxy Milky way is best visible in the south, where it visible straight in zenith at it’s best. Also Magellanic clouds, Coalsack, Jewelbox cluster, Magellanic clouds, Omega Centauri and many other wonders are best visible in southern hemisphere. In this part of my observing report, my main focus is in those far-south objects, that can be observed well only in southern hemisphere, so I’m leaving objects that are observable from southern Europe out from this text.
The center of Milky way
In the southern hemisphere, like in Australia, the Milky way is visible well in the zenith at its best! And this was the case during our trip, when the Milky way was in the zenith in early evening.
The southern Milky way is truly amazing sight! The area around the center of Milky way is a complex mosaic of bright and dark nebulas and it is widest and brightest around Sagittarius. In Sagittarius, resides the brightest part of Milky way, The large star cloud of Sagittarius. Brightness and appearance of Large Sagittarius star cloud cannot be compared with any other area of Milky way, it is that bright and amazing! Also Small Sagittarius cloud is a noteworthy detail in Southern Milky way just like dark nebula called the Pipe nebula in Ophiuchus.
Milky way time lapse video
During our trip I also produced a time lapse video of the Milky way. On the video, Milky way is setting to western horizon. For this video, I let the camera to shoot for 5 hours, in this time, 294 photos were taken. Exposure time for each photos was 30 s, and the interval between the photos was also 30 s. As the camera, I used Canon EOS 1100D and as objective 8 mm Samyang fish eye lens. ISO value for each photos was ISO 6400. The time lapse video itself was produced from the photos with Virtual Dub freeware software.
Pipe nebula is a notable dark nebula in Milky way in the southern part of Ophiuchus. The shape of the nebula really looks like a tobacco pipe, which has been the inspiration to name the nebula. Different parts of the nebula have unique designations in the Barnard catalogue of dark nebulas: Barnard 59, 65–67, ja 78. The apparent visual size of the nebula is about 6 x 3 degrees (measured from the widest part of the nebula.
Coalsack is perhaps the most famous dark nebula in the whole sky, and it is also one of the most notable objects of the southern sky. Coalsack is located immediately next to Southern Cross, and visually it appears as a very dark and sharp-edged hole in the Milky way. Apparent size of Coalsack is comparable with the size of Southern Cross, about 7 x 5 degrees. In the photograph it is apparent that there is also some brighter nebula around the area of Coalsack and also couple of (probably foreground) stars are visible in the area of the nebula.
NGC 4755, better known as the Jewelbox cluster, is a beatiful, compact and bright-starred open cluster in the constellation of Southern Cross. The cluster is dominated by an array of bright stars in a V-shaped form. Total brightness of the cluster is about 4 magnitudes and size 10′.
Carina nebula (NGC 3372) is one of the greatest treasures in the entire sky and absolutely the most magnificent bright nebula in the sky! The nebula is large and bright, and it is visible already with naked eye. Apparent total brightness of the nebula is 3 magnitudes and size about 2 x 2 degrees! Visually the size of the nebula is about 30′ x 30′, so it appears as large as full Moon! The nebula is a complex conglomerate of bright and dark nebulous matter. There is a dominating dark lane dividing the nebula in half. Northern side of the nebula is the brightest part of the nebula. That northern part of the nebula is a triangle-shaped strip of nebula with the tip of the triangle pointing approximately to NW. The southern part of the nebula is further divided in three parts by lanes of dark nebula. There appears to be several stars embedded within the nebula. One of the is famous star Eta Carinae, know for it’s dramatic eruptions and large variability throughout the history.
Magellanic clouds, named after famous Portuguese explorer Fernão de Magalhães (typically in English Ferdinand Magellan), are two brightest and most obvious irregular satellite galaxies of Milky way.
Magellanic clouds can be observed from southern hemisphere, like Australia. Visually Magellanic clouds appear as nebulous “clouds”, that are comparable with average brightness and average appearance of the Milky way. They appear as pieces of Milky way that have been ripped apart from it and thrown in the sky in their current location. Visual apparent size of Large Magellanic cloud is about 10 x 9 degrees, the size of Small Magellanic cloud is about half of the size of the large cloud, about 5 x 3 degrees.
When visually observing Large Magellanic cloud, it appears clearly elongated in shape. According to current theories about LMC, the galaxy could actually be a failed barred spiral galaxy, that is distorted by the gravity of Milky way. That bar-shaped structure gives the galaxy it’s elongated shape. With naked eye, also the area of Tarantula nebula is visible as a distinct brightening in the eastern end of the galaxy. With 10×50 binoculars, the bar structure is obvious and dominating, besides the bar, Tarantula nebula is easy and ovious, also several other HII areas and open clusters are visible. When viewing LMC with 10×50 binos, the galaxy fills the whole field, and also parts of the galaxy don’t even fit in the field!
Small Magellanic cloud appears visually as elongated, nebulous patch with even brightness distribution. Size of the small cloud is about half of the size of the large cloud. With naked eye 47 Tucanae, a bright globular cluster belonging to the small cloud is visible as a star-like object in SW side of the galaxy. With 10 x 50 binos the small cloud appears as bean-shaped nebula, and also some HII areas are visible in the northern part of the nebula. There is also another patch of nebula in the eastern part of the cloud which looks like to be separate from the main part of the cloud. 47 Tucanae is easily visible 2 degrees west from the center of the cloud.
Tarantula nebula (NGC 2070) is the most obvious and best known detail of Large Magellanic Cloud. It is located in the eastern end of the nebula, and it is visible already by naked eye. Total brightness of Tarantula nebula is 5 magnitudes, and photographic size as much as 40′, so it is larger than full Moon! Tarantula nebula is a huge HII region in LMC, and it is second largest in the whole local group, only NGC 604 in Triangle galaxy is larger. It’s true size is estimated to be 650-1860 light years. Supernova 1987A was observed LMC near Tarantula nebula. That supernova was the closest one since the supernova of 1604.
Famous globular cluster 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) is large and bright globular cluster in Small Magellanic Cloud. It is actually the second largest in the whlose sky after Omega Centari. Brightness of 47 Tucanae is 4 magnitudes and sise 30′, comparable with the size of full Moon! With my 80/400 mm refractor, the cluster appears strongly granular, so apparently there are great amount of stars just at the threshold of visibility. The cluster gets clearly brighter towards the center.
Zodiac light is easy and obvious in Australia. Zodiac light is visible as a pale, triangle shaped dome of light in the western sky, and it is visible for about 1-2 hours after sunset, and it will be visible after sunset as soon as the sky is dark enough.
Sydney and Sydney observatory
During our trip, we spent two weeks in Australia between 15th and 29th of August 2019. We spent the first week of our trip in Sydney spotting some major attractions and sights of the city, because the city itself is interesting and because phase of the Moon was too large. In 22nd of August we took a flight from Sydney to Dubbo, from where we drove all they way to Coonabarabran, our astronomy destination. We stayed in Coonabarabran between 22nd and 28th of August. In 28th we returned to Sydney for one more day and night before returning to Finland in 29th of August.
During our last day in Sydney we visited one more astronomical site, Sydney observatory! Sydney observatory has been established in 1859, and it was in active use until early 1980’s. Since early 1980’s it has been serving as a museum. The Sydney observatory is comparable with Helsinki observatory in Finland, which is from the same era. There are similar instruments in the display from median circle to time bag, that served as a time signal sailors. The observatory is also a home for the oldest telescope in active use in Australia, the telescope is used in public star viewing sessions. That telescope is 29 cm (about 11”) refractor that has been in service since 1874.
So that was our epic astronomy adventure to Australia! That trip wasn’t easy to pull of and it wasn’t always fun to sit long hours in the airplane, but it was definitely worth it! The southern sky is truly amazing experience, and I think every northbound amateur astronomer and astronomy enthusiast should see the southern sky at least once during their lifetime! I’m so happy and grateful that I had this unique and special opportunity to make this lifelong dream come true! And of course I hope that I could go to Australia again in the future to do some more observing, because you just don’t run out of objects to observe there in down under!