We jumped out of bed at 6am and said a quick prayer to the weather gods before pulling back the curtains to find…SUNSHINE!!! After a very quick breakfast we jumped back on the ‘rocket ship’ to continue our journey along the world largest virtual solar system into the Warrumbungle Mountains and onto the Australian Astronomical Observatory which is the finishing point for the virtual solar system.
We arrived at the UK Schmidt Telescope and were greeted by Fred Watson, his colleague Malcolm Hartley and a below zero wind that froze every bit of exposed skin! We were given some fantastic Solar Eclipse sunglasses to help us look at the sun very safely to help us view the Transit.
Fred arrived early at the site and had the telescopes all set up and ready to go. It didn’t take Nick very long to have his telescope set up and was enthusiastically telling those nearby about sunspots, the famous ‘black drop’ that happens during the first contact with the sun and shouting out the minutes until the Transit of Venus. Watching the first and second contact of the 2012 Transit of Venus was something that will stay with me forever. It was really remarkable watching this small black spot move slowly across the face of the sun.
After the second contact of Venus we headed up to the lounge area of the UK Schmidt telescope and had some morning tea and defrosted our bodies. We boarded the bus again and Fred took us on a small trip around the collection of other observatories on the mountain before splitting into 2 groups.
The first group went with Fred for a behind the scene tour of the Anglo-Australian Telescope while the second group went with Malcolm for a behind the scenes tour of the UK Schmidt telescope. I was with the second group and Malcolm (who discovered a comet in 1986 using the UK Schmidt telescope) explained the techniques of spectroscopy used by the telescope and showed us some amazing pictures of different galaxies that the telescope had taken.
On the second tour with Fred we all piled into the goods lift and headed up to the floor of the gigantic Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). The telescope was built in 1974 and was one of the last 4-metre equatorially mounted telescopes to be constructed. The AAT was constructed in Australia so that astronomers could explore in detail some of the most exciting regions of the sky, including the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy and its nearest neighbours, the Magellanic Clouds. The sheer enormity of the telescope was quite overwhelming. Fred mentioned the very interesting point that artist Rosalie Gascoigne had chosen the … ah … somewhat interesting colour scheme for the telescope (Avocado and Chocolate). Rosaline was married to Astronomer Ben Gascoigne who played a leading role in the design and commissioning of Australia's largest optical telescope, the AAT. We saw the control room of the telescope which looked like it had not been updated since the 70’s and made me feel like I was on a movie set!
After our tour we all went back to the UK Schmidt telescope toasted the 2012 Transit of Venus, thanked Fred Watson and Nick Lomb for giving up their time and knowledge to make this an amazing tour and all boarded our bus home.
This Australian Museum Members trip could not have happened if it wasn’t for Marnie Ogg and her incredible organizational skills. We would like to thank Dr Nick Lomb for sharing his time and unending knowledge on the Transit of Venus with us, as well as many other aspects of Astronomy and his wonderful sense of humor. To Dr Fred Watson, thank you for sharing your time to come along with us on your Transit of Venus journey. We know you were extremely busy with interviews over the 4 days and you managed to spread yourself between all of your commitments so well. We all loved your commentary while on the bus (one person even commented that it was like having our own personal ABC talk back radio station) and we are thankful that you invited Australian Museum Members into your world at the Australian Astronomical Observatory. We would also like to send a big thank you to our gracious hosts for their time and expertise at the CSIRO Parkes Radio telescope, NASA’s Deep Space Communication Center, Mount Stromlo Observatory and we cannot forget our amazing bus driver John who, in spite of one small hiccup along the way, got us to see the Transit of Venus with a smile and fantastic service at each and every stop.