An Expert's Guide to Stargazing in the Warrumbungles
Wednesday 4th December 2019
By Ely Power
Fall In Love With The Stars At Donna The Astronomer’s ‘Dark Sky Show’
Cover image: Byron Smith
Avoid the seaside hordes with a rural road trip to Australia’s astronomy capital! A cruisey 6-hour drive from Sydney or 7-hour drive Brisbane, Coonbarabran is the gateway to a stellar stargazing spot - Warrumbungle National Park is entirely untouched by city lights, meaning you can marvel at some of the brightest, most breathtaking celestial spectacles on Earth.
So instead of searching the sand for an empty space, feel the magic of our night sky like never before as you discover the joys of stargazing in New England. Below, we chat with Donna Burton about all things astronomy so that you can plan the ultimate stargazing adventure in Australia’s only Dark Sky Park
Meet Donna the Astronomer
Growing up in the outback with no TVs or computers in sight, the night sky captured Donna’s imagination from a young age. Then one Christmas she unwrapped a telescope and the rest is history!
Quite literally, too. Donna is the first and only Aussie woman to discover two comets: C/2006 R1 Siding Spring and C/2007 Q3 Siding Spring. "The next one will have my name!", she insists.
Having worked on the research telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory for many years, she now leads the Dark Sky Show at Milroy Observatory while studying for her PHD in Astrophysics. Always delighted to share her passion with others, Donna is your go-to expert for anything astronomical!
"People don’t get to see the sky properly. It’s a shame because the entire planet has got a single sky - one world, one sky - and we can unite underneath it." - Donna
Why The Warrumbungles?
There’s no better place to admire the Milky Way than pristine Warrumbungle National Park. Home to 60 years of astronomical research, the region was carefully chosen for its ideal stargazing conditions:
"Having the Warrumbungles on your doorstep is a dream come true for any astronomer. With its crystal-clear night skies, high altitude and low humidity, it’s no surprise that Warrumbungle has been officially named the Southern Hemisphere’s first Dark Sky Park." - Donna
Achieving Dark Sky status in 2016, policies restrict light pollution within 200km of this magnificent volcanic landscape. Free from artificial illumination, you can enjoy a rare opportunity to awe at the glittering night sky in all its glory!
What Cool Things Will You See?
Sprinkled with thousands of sparkling stars, the Warrumbungles boast an unbeatable night sky bound to exceed expectations all-year-round.
However, visible objects vary depending on the season, with certain constellations and planets as far-flung as Saturn seen at different times of the year. For instance, you can gaze at the Magellanic Clouds - two galaxies that orbit our own - every summer (don’t even try to spot these showstoppers in a lit-up town).
Donna says, "If you time your trip to the Warrumbungles well, it’s possible to see 6,000 - 7,000 stars with the human eye." Compare that to cities like Sydney, where you’ll only spot 100 on a good night!
Speaking of timing...
When Is The Best Time To Stargaze In NSW?
You can stargaze any day of the year. That said, you’ll be treated to the most stunning displays about three days after a full moon. Why so? Firstly, darkness falls earlier in the day at this point in our lunar calendar. Secondly, a bright, full moon means less visible stars.
"The moon is not an astronomer’s friend. That said, looking at its craters is pretty cool!" - Donna
Essentially, you’re guaranteed to see an awful lot once it’s dark so scheduling a visit depends on how late your group is able to stay up (you can avoid daylight savings from March to October, a tip that families with little ones might appreciate!).
Join Donna for an extraordinary journey through space and time as you discover the wonders of our stars, planets, galaxies and so much more. Begin with an interactive tour beneath the Milky Way before trying out Milroy Obervatory’s iconic 40’’ telescope for yourself.
"I have two rules: 1) Have fun 2) Ask questions. The show goes along with what the audience wants!" - Donna
Enthralling for all ages, this hands-on experience will feed the whole family’s curiosity. Keen to hear the myth behind Orion’s Belt? Want to learn how to use binoculars or telescopes? This tour teaches it all in the hopes that you, too, will fall in love with our wondrous night sky.
"Being under that sky humbles you. When you’re looking at stars that are 12 billion years old, the numbers are so ridiculous that they put everything in perspective. And that experience is what it’s all about." - Donna
So what should you bring on your visit? 10x50 binoculars provide a large, bright aperture while still being light enough to hold. What’s more, a digital SLR camera is best for capturing pictures of the sky and can even be attached to their 40’’ inch telescope for the ultimate photo.
Stargazing 101: Tips for Beginners
It’ll be no surprise if you want to take up astronomy as a hobby after discovering the joys of stargazing! But where should you start?
Get Outside, Lay Back And Look Up
To begin a lifetime of celestial exploration, simply step outside on a clear night. Dedicate enough time to take it all in and you’ll notice more objects in the sky than ever before - even if you live in a light-polluted city.
Read A Book
Astronomy is rooted in intellectual discovery. And a good, old-fashioned trip to the library is one of the best ways to learn about our enchanting night sky. Donna recommends the Astronomy series, an annual publication that takes you on a fascinating adventure across the night sky, explaining and pinpointing its wonders like no other.
Download Some Stargazing Software
Stellarium is a free computer software that explains exactly what you see when staring at the sky - just put in a date and location to see what’s (literally) up. To enjoy a planetarium on your phone, choose from heaps of stargazing apps. Otherwise, websites like skymaps.com and heavens-above.com offer brilliant sky charts.
Join An Astronomy Club Or Facebook Group
Share your passion with others at a local astronomy society, which will usually hold fun meetings and group stargazing sessions! Alternatively, join a facebook group to connect with astronomers around the world. Both communities offer a fantastic opportunity to get expert advice, develop your skills and make new friends.
Buy Some Binoculars
As long as you've got a sky map, binoculars will provide endless entertainment! With a wide field of view that’s right-side up, it’s super simple to navigate the night sky. And given how affordable they are, their performance is pretty impressive.
Camping In The Warrumbungles
You’ll need somewhere to stay after the tour. Luckily, there’s nothing as magical as sleeping under the stars within a Dark Sky Park. So hire a van and choose from a range of quality camping grounds and caravan parks in the Warrumbungles! Our favourites are Camp Wambelong and Camp Blackman, where you can kick back and relax with resident roos.
‘The Warrumbungles will always be a great place for a holiday because there are so many natural wonders to see. And at night, you get the ever-lasting stars!’
What are you waiting for? Visit Milroy Observatory’s website to book a stargazing adventure you’ll never forget.
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