Thanks to the recent news that light pollution has made the Milky Way invisible to a third of the world's population, now is the time to clap an eye on the starry void. And there's plenty happening up there, with Venus, Mercury and Jupiter all jostling for space on the twilight horizon.
Unfortunately, the amount of excess light that Sydney leaks into the night sky could make an experienced vampire double check what time it is. With that in mind, we've scoped out the spots in and around Sydney where it's still possible to use one's telescope for its intended purpose. Stargazing, that is — not trying to peek at what your neighbours keep behind their curtains.
In terms of physical proximity to the night sky, Sydney Observatory is a pretty good starting point. One of the highest points overlooking Sydney Harbour, its building houses three telescopes — including the oldest working telescope in Australia, which was built for the 1874 transit of Venus, a 40-centimetre computer-controlled lens and, for those of you who prefer gazing at the star closest to us, a telescope that lets you look at the sun.
The Observatory runs night and day tours, workshops exploring early Indigenous astronomy and a range of short courses. This is definitely the first step for every would-be Galileo.
Situated in the Blue Mountains, Linden Observatory was the work of a single brilliant amateur astronomer, Ken Beames. He finished the site's 60-centimetre telescope in the years following World War II, also building the dome that houses it and the direction control system himself.
If you're keen on checking it out, however, don't take the advice of poet William Butler Yeats, who once wrote "Seek, then,/No learning from the starry men,/Who follow with the optic glass/The whirling ways of stars that pass." Linden's heritage-listed building can only be accessed by tagging along to a meeting of the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group. If you're happy enough to check out Beames' handiwork from the outside, though, Reverend Bob Evans runs beginners astronomy courses on the weekend of each new moon in the nearby viewing field.
Penrith Observatory is part of Western Sydney University, run by a team of maths and engineering boffins dedicated to cracking the universe open to see what makes it tick. They pause occasionally in this quest to host programs for the public, ranging from paper rocket construction to exploring the life cycles of stars.
Volunteers from the Western Sydney Cosmic Data Lab also hold astronomy nights on most Saturdays of the year, regardless of the weather. For the less nocturnal, there are various day programs that give visitors the chance to safely observe the flaming gas giant that supports life on this planet. And it's less than an hour from the CBD.
It's a bit out of the way, but Mudgee Observatory is far enough from civilisation that there's zero chance of confusing Jupiter with your neighbour's bug zapper. It's also where, in 1999, Steve Lee discovered 1999 H1 — otherwise known as Comet Lee.
With four domes that can play host to visitor's telescopes and a 40-centimetre 'Dobby' (Dobsonian) lens they've christened Tweety, this is where the night skies can be viewed as they were meant to be viewed. Don't just take our word for it, with the site's webpage promising just that.
Just out past Richmond, the Astronomical Society of New South Wales has established one of their "dark sky" observing sites in the middle of the Blue Mountains National Park. The observatory is old-school, comprised of an olive brick building with a basic kitchen on the ground floor and a camping area nearby. The dome itself is made from corrugated iron.
Beginners will need to be accompanied by an accredited ASNSW member, but there's also a viewing space that has been cleared so amateurs can wander along and watch galaxies collide and stars implode at a time that suits them.
This observatory was hand-built by 19th century astronomy nut John Tebbutt. If the name sounds familiar, it could be because you were flush in the '80s and '90s — his face graced the $100 note until '96. Tebbutt's Observatory in Windsor was rebuilt a number of times as he updated his telescopes, but the building that remains dates to 1879.
Tebbutt, it was said, couldn't look up without discovering a comet. So make no mistake — if astronomical greatness is going to find you, it will find you here.
DARK SKY SITES
If you're feeling more intrepid and would prefer an astronomical experience that doesn't take place through the roof of a building, why not try a dark sky site instead? Observatories aren't the only place to look up, with these excellent secluded fields and lookouts also offering a great vantage to take in heavenly bodies.
Warrumbungle National Park is a proper hike (read: a five or six hour drive from Sydney), but it's also a proper dark sky site. In the last few years, the State Government has dedicated funds to limiting light pollution in and around the park. With these measures in place, Warrumbungle joins Death Valley National Park in the US and Galloway Forest Park in Scotland as an official dark sky park — that is, one of the top three places on the planet to revel in galactic goings-on
Warrumbungle does have its own observatory, but scientists and astronomers have the run of the place after sundown. Amateur astronomy in Warrumbungle is best performed the old-fashioned way, with the humble eyeball (and optional pince-nez).
Wiruna is the Astronomical Society of NSW's best kept secret — if you go to their website, you'll see what we mean. Located on the outskirts of Wollemi National Park in the Blue Mountains, Wiruna is basically 107 acres of astronomy Christmas. Starry season's greetings, sky-lovers.
The ASNSW holds a number of stargazing sessions on weekends throughout the year, and encourages amateurs and old hands alike to come and use the incredible array of equipment they've got stashed up there — from 'The Ashtray', a telescope that survived a fire, to the Mike Kerr Observatory, housing the aptly named Obsession Telescope. As with Crago, the ASNSW prefers newbies to be accompanied by accredited members, so if you get in touch with them, they'll tell you next time Old Man Hubble is heading bush.
Yeah, we know. It's an airfield. But think about it — no buildings blocking the skyline and a minimum of light. If you're looking to do some stargazing that doesn't also involve pitching a tent at some stage, airfields really are the place to go.
Katoomba is supposedly unrivalled because of its elevation, which negates a lot of the city's light pollution. As with any location in which airborne vehicles are coming and going at speed, some degree of caution (like staying on the right side of the fence) is advised. But if you can wrap your head around that rule, this is apparently one of the few places in Sydney where the Milky Way can be seen in detail with the naked eye.
Another patch of unadulterated sky can be found in Sydney's Terrey Hills, near the northern beaches. This is one of the Northern Sydney Astronomical Society's new haunts, where observing nights are run on weekends for novices and experienced sky captains alike.
As with most of these astro society hangouts, they've got telescopes to share and keen eyes with which to point out the myriad phenomena taking place in the universal void. If you're a lonely wanderer through the vast wash of space, this may well be the place to enter the orbit of some like-minds.