A Letter from Australia

By Dr Russell Cockman

Upon my return to Australia after 20 enjoyable years in Scotland, I was excited at the prospect of being able to observe the glorious southern skies again. And so it has turned out to be!

Over the years away I enjoyed finding my way around the northern sky and taking in its many delights ' constellations such as Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, Polaris, M31, the Great Galaxy in Andromeda, M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy in Triangulum, M81 and M82 in Ursa Major and the lovely Milky Way star fields from Cygnus through to Perseus, including such splendid sights such as the North America Nebula (in Cygnus), the California Nebula and the Double Cluster (both in Perseus) ' have all became familiar to me.

I'm now going through the process of re-orienting myself, reprogramming my brain that the sun is now always in the northern half of the sky, that there is no bright pole star and that the constellations visible from both hemispheres, such as Orion and Leo, are still there, but upside down! I'm enjoying roaming through the great southern constellations such as Crux, Centaurus and Carina, that are invisible from the latitude of Central Scotland, but very familiar to observers in southern Australia. During August-September, away from the city lights, there were superb views of the Magellanic clouds and the glorious Milky Way running through Ara-Scorpius-Sagittarius-Ophiuchus which, I was pleasantly surprised to see, were also faintly visible from the light-polluted suburban areas of Australia's two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne (combined pop 8 million). There are huge numbers of street lights about, but the majority I've seen direct the light downwards minimizing light projecting into the sky. Nevertheless there is a lot of light pollution about (and I've heard it is getting worse) but I wonder what might have been if the choice of light fitting had been more arbitrary.

I've joined the Melbourne Astronomical Society which has a strong focus on telescope making and using this equipment for observing; Friday is the night for meeting. Once a month there is a society meeting, an informal affair where members are updated on current events and given opportunity to say what they've been up to, then to the superb home-made telescopes to observe. Even from this light-polluted (shallow sky) location views of some of the jewels of the southern sky such as the globular clusters, Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae and the (open cluster) Jewel Box are wonderful. Canopus is beautiful, whilst alpha Centauri, alpha Crucis and beta Tucanae are magnificent and favourite double stars. Once a month, around the time of new moon, there is a dark sky observing session scheduled at a location around an hour and a half drive out of Melbourne ' the weather often frustrates as the last successful night was in April! Hopefully with summer here there will be more success to come, especially as the star fields of Puppis, Vela and Carina are becoming accessible and The Magellanic Clouds are best placed!

I've seen some beautiful sunsets over the sea horizon of Port Phillip Bay, just a couple of minutes walk from where I'm living, together with some sundogs, a solar arc, a lunar arc, crescent moon with brilliant Earthshine and a spectacle that I didn't expect to see for many years, a display of the Aurora Australis on the 10th November! A glow low to the south sprouted extensive rays that projected upwards and I had just enough time to take some digital photos before the clouds rolled in from the west! How fitting it was to capture the display in front of two famous southern sky icons, the Southern Cross and the Pointers.

My equipment has arrived and has been set up for Melbourne's latitude. Hopefully in the months ahead I will have ample opportunities to photograph the glories of the southern sky. Stay tuned for updates and for some images when they become available.