Coonabarabran: astronomy capital

Coonabarabran is the astronomy capital of Australia, by virtue of hosting the Siding Spring Observatory (SSO) – Australia’s key site for optical astronomy research and the location of the largest telescopes in the country. Coona also holds the annual Warrumbungle Festival of the Stars (usually in October), which celebrates the town’s connections with astronomy.

The SSO site was chosen for its clear skies, low light pollution (being hundreds of kilometres from Sydney, Canberra and Newcastle) and relatively high altitude. These advantages are also true of the town itself and I was amazed to see so many features of the night sky, normally hidden by light pollution in Sydney, even just standing outside my quarters at Coonabarabran Hospital. As I looked up at the sky (and took a few photos – see my Flickr photostream), I wondered how many fellow Sydneysiders would grow up never seeing the Milky Way arc across the night sky.

The Milky Way from Coonabarabran
The Milky Way from Coonabarabran Hospital

Anyway, a bit of commentary (and photos) of some of my astronomy-related adventures around Coona!

Siding Spring Observatory
John Renshaw Parkway, Coonabarabran NSW 2357
www.mso.anu.edu.au/info/sso/

Taking pride of place at SSO is the 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT), the largest optical telescope in Australia. Its location at an altitude of 1165 metres helps to reduce astronomical seeing and makes the AAT dome a visible landmark from town. The location of AAT also makes the deck outside a great place to view the Warrumbungles. The telescopes are not publicly accessible (professional astronomers have real work to do), however the AAT can be viewed from the observation deck (tip: if you don’t feel like walking up four flights of stairs, enter AAT using the door on the left and take the lift). There is also a small “exploratory” exhibit at SSO, but it’s really only of interest to astronomy beginners.

Anglo-Australian Telescope dome
Anglo-Australian Telescope dome

Anglo-Australian Telescope
Anglo-Australian Telescope

Warrumbungle Observatory
“Tenby”, John Renshaw Parkway, Coonabarabran NSW 2357
www.tenbyobservatory.com

While SSO telescopes are not accessible to the public, there’s a nearby private observatory run by former SSO manager Peter Starr. Warrumbungle Observatory offers nightly sky and telescope viewing sessions under the knowledgeable guidance of Mr Starr and the opportunity for astrophotography through his telescopes for those with an SLR camera (see my Flickr photostream). I highly recommend going there if you visit Coona.

Astronomical viewing at Warrumbungle Observatory
Astronomical viewing at Warrumbungle Observatory

Lagoon Nebula M8 (NGC 6523), Warrumbungle Observatory
Lagoon Nebula M8 (NGC 6523), Warrumbungle Observatory
Canon EOS 30D, Meade XL200 (14″)

World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive
www.solarsystemdrive.com

Lastly, a rather more touristy aspect to the astronomy capital – the World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive. This is a scale model of the solar system where the 37 metre diameter AAT dome represents the Sun. Scattered at approximate scale distances on the main roads to SSO/Coona from Dubbo, Gulgong, Merriwa, Tamworth and Moree are billboards featuring scale models of the planets (including Pluto). During my travels around Coona I eventually managed to see all the planets – it really gives you a sense of the vastness of space and just how small our planet is in the grand scheme of things.

Earth: Worlds Largest Virtual Solar System Drive
Earth: World’s Largest Virtual Solar System Drive