The day I saw the Orion Nebula

The Mount Burnett Observatory 45cm monster

The Mount Burnett Observatory’s 45cm monster

Hello lovely readers. I hope you survived the festive season and are tackling 2015 with gusto, alcohol and some laughs.

Those of you who’ve been visiting the Lily Pad for a while know that I love nature and science. Yes I do love things other than cats, quiet, you! In fact there’s a DOG in this post, so there.

If you’re new to the Lily Pad, you’ll find lots of deranged, sweary ramblings about animals and the natural world in general on this site. If you’re not interested in any of these things, ABORT ABORT GET OUT NOW.

I’m a big nerd and I never let my lack of science aptitude outweigh my passion, so despite having almost zero astronomical experience, I was thrilled last week when I spotted a tweet from the lovely Upulie promoting the Mount Burnett Observatory’s annual open day. The Mount Burnett Observatory is, in their own words, “An astronomical society based at Mount Burnett Observatory, in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. The Observatory was originally built in 1972 by Monash University. In 2011 the site was formally taken over by our organisation and it now has a new life as a community observatory.”

The community aspect of this organisation was soon very obvious. Upulie, The Child, and I rocked up late in the afternoon, hoping to catch a dome talk, the BBQ and then the oh-so-precious night-time stargazing. We weren’t disappointed. The team at the MBO are friendly and enthusiastic and we were soon up in the dome being blown away by the incredibly detailed knowledge of the telescope’s curator, Ken, ably assisted by Barry Cleland, the Observatory’s Librarian. Together they explained the history of the huge monster that was later going to help us peer out into the universe, and were incredibly generous with their expertise and knowledge.

We were encouraged to take a photo down the barrel of the telescope…

Astronomical selfies FTW

Astronomical selfies FTW

… and we even got to wind the dome – outstanding!

Upulie winding the dome. SO GREAT.

Upulie winding the dome. I’m winding a freaking astronomy dome, kids!

We saw the Sun through a solar telescope. OMFG. I SAW SUN SPOTS, PEOPLE! Mind. Blown. But wait, there was more.

After a very friendly BBQ, a paper plane competition (thanks for helping The Child out, Ken, your plane design is now enshrined as the ultimate in our house), and a visit from Dodge, the neighbourhood dog, we enjoyed an entertaining presentation from Perry Vlahos, the Observatory’s Media Liaison, on what we could expect in the skies later that night.

As the sun went down, a variety of other freestanding telescopes appeared and we saw the crescent Moon, and Venus. These words really don’t convey how exciting this all was. I was pretty content by then (SUN SPOTS, PEOPLE! VENUS, FFS!) but there was still some night-time viewing through the big telescope to be done.

Back up in the dome, we saw the moon again. After a bit of negotiation (thanks again, Ken), as the night became darker, I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Looking up in the dark, through the dome aperture, they started to re-position the telescope and swing the dome around so we could view the Orion Nebula. It’s hard to explain why this had such a huge impact on me. As the aperture moved, suddenly different stars were coming into view and I felt an intense connection to this as ACTUAL SCIENCE rather than a tourism experience. No amount of watching The Universe compares to being in a working telescope dome.

Ken did his magic, and in a flash we were looking at the Orion Nebula. Holy crap. An actual piece of deep space, or “deep sky”. There were the four newborn stars at the centre of the nebula, with the swirling mass of gas and dust. And I was looking at them, with my own eyes.

Very, very late in the night, we were ridiculously privileged to see Jupiter, along with three of its moons in transit – Io, Europa, and Callisto. We could even see some of the bands of different coloured gases streaking across the surface. I don’t think I’ve ever exclaimed “Oh Wow!” so many times in one day.

We became members on the spot and I’m looking forward to more adventures and getting to know the MBO team better. My heartfelt thanks to them for making the event so enjoyable.

As we walked to the car, we gazed up at the edge of the Milky Way, so depressingly invisible from my back yard, and marveled.

The Moon. The Sun. Venus. Orion. Jupiter.

What a brilliant day, what a stunning sky.

I can’t wait to go back.

You can see the Mount Burnett Observatory’s website here, Facebook here, and Twitter here. I recommend you take a look.

Addendum: We also saw two satellites but I forgot because JUPITER and ORION and SUNSPOTS and TIRED. Sorry.

Have you ever been in an astronomical observatory?


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