On The Road Again

In March of each year, hundreds of space and astronomy enthusiasts converge on Curtin University for the annual Astrofest for an evening of talks, displays and sky viewing through the many telescopes brought along by astronomical organisations. However, the vast distances in WA mean that many regional space enthusiasts can’t make the event. As such, regional astronomy groups now hold their own Astrofest events.

The POVG was asked if they could participate in two regional Astrofests in Geraldton and Carnarvon on the 27th and 28th of May respectively. Lured by the promise of dark skies, fellow POVG volunteer Matt Woods and I packed a van with telescopes and headed north.

Matt Woods (left) and John Ford setting up for the Geraldton Astrofest. Image Credit: Carol Redford

The Geraldton Astrofest, held on 28th May, was hosted by Ken Lawson of the Geraldton Astronomical Society. The actual venue was 35 km north of Geraldton at the Chapman Valley Fishing Park, away from the lights of the main town. As well as the POVG, there were participants from ICRAR and the Stargazers Club of WA.

The night was perfectly clear, and soon shuttle buses from Geraldton brought several keen stargazers to the site. The inky blackness of the sky made viewing an absolute delight. Star clusters and constellations, difficult to see in light-polluted areas, stood out clearly to the unaided eye. Visitors enjoyed views of Jupiter, Saturn, Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula through our telescopes.

After the general public left, many of the participants stayed on to take advantage of the exceptional viewing conditions to look at some of the fainter deep sky objects such as Centaurus A and M 83, and even comet Johnson. Alas, we couldn’t stay all night, as the following day required another 4-hour drive north to Carnarvon.

The 30m OTC satellite dish at Carnarvon. Image Credit: Matt Woods

The town of Carnarvon is a real surprise packet for the space travel enthusiast. By virtue of being very close to the opposite side of the Earth to the launch site of Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft launched from there would all pass over the Australian coast close to Carnarvon. This made it a natural choice for one of NASA’s important tracking stations for the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions. During the height of the space program in the 1960s, Carnarvon was visited by a who’s who of the NASA space program including Original 7 astronauts Alan Shepard and Wally Schirra and future Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad.

In recent times, moonwalking astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan and Australian astronaut Andy Thomas have also visited the town. The Carnarvon Astrofest was held at the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum on 29th May, under the expanse of the 30m OTC satellite dish that formed part of the tracking facility. Some lighting had to be used around the area for safety, however, the visitors still had great views of Jupiter and Saturn, and the elevated location gave a wonderful view of the setting waxing crescent moon, with the side lighting highlighting the craters, mountains and valleys.

The following day the museum owner Phil Youd and his staff gave us a tour of the museum, which had a fascinating collection of technology used during the NASA years, as well as an Apollo capsule simulator which gave a realistic experience of take-off on a Saturn V rocket. Again our fun had to be cut short, as we had to make the 9-hour trip back to Perth that day.

We would like to thanks Ken Lawson of the Geraldton Astronomical Society and Phil Youd and his staff and the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum for their invitation to their astronomy nights and their hospitality.