Stargazing Live Australia and a trip down memory lane

Michael Burton, Director of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium

Have you been enthralled by the BBC’s Stargazing Live Australia, hosted by Brian Cox and Dara O Briain and shown over three nights at the end March this year?  A spectacular show, hosted from Siding Spring Observatory in the Warrumbungles National Park of New South Wales in Australia, and set against the wonderful backdrop of the southern skies and our Milky Way Galaxy that is seen from there.


Brian Cox and Dara O Briain hosting the show, and the southern Milky Way.

For me the show was a trip down memory lane.  I moved to Sydney nearly three decades ago to go and work with the Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT) at Siding Spring, then one of the world’s giant telescopes.  It still is one of the world’s most productive telescopes despite several behemoths having been built since then.  The Warrumbungles mountain range where the observatory lies is the home to Australia’s premier optical astronomical observatory, and a truly spectacular setting, as the backdrop to Brian and Dara’s presentation showed.  Bluff Mountain and the Grand High Tops were behind them along the horizon, and the star fields towards the centre of our Galaxy shone above.

I went to the AAT as a staff astronomer in 1990 working with the first infrared camera – IRIS – and with David Allen, one of the giants of astronomy from whom I started to learn the arts of science communication in addition to just being a simple scientist.  David was sadly lost to us a few years later, and I moved to the University of New South Wales to begin a life as a university academic, where I was for nearly 25 years before moving to Armagh last year.

The container for the mirror for the 3.9m Anglo Australian Telescope, or 154 inches as it was then measured in. It sits outside, beside the telescope, with the volcanic peaks of the Warrumbungles forming the backdrop. The firm of Grubb Parsons originated in Ireland, with roots from the Parson’s family in Birr Castle in Offaly, much frequented by the great Amargh Observatory Director Romney Robinson in the 19th century.  Armagh has two Grubb telescopes in our Observatory.

I was impressed that the BBC team called the the mountain by its correct name, Mt Woorut, and not Siding Spring Mountain as nearly every visitor there seems to think it is called.  Siding Spring is actually a modest little stream which rises just below the south face of the summit ridge where the telescopes lie; not many get to go there!  In the second episode the team had to contend with dense fog, not actually an uncommon phenomenon at the Siding Spring, which creates its own micro-climate, orographic cloud to give it its technical name.  I remember such an experience on my own very first trip to the AAT as the rookie staff astronomer.  As I headed out from the astronomer’s lodge to the telescope through the fog, I saw a shape looming up before me. I thought it was the telescope until I got right up to it looking for a way in, only to discover it was the Observatory’s water tower!

The view of the Warrumbungles mountain from Mt Woorut a few months after the bushfire of 2013.  The first signs of re-growth are evident.

Siding Spring Observatory experienced an enormous bush fire in January 2013, and nearly was burnt down.  Indeed many houses were destroyed, and some  locals who had built their lives around the mountain and the Observatory lost all.  It was a tragedy for the community.

By then my own research had moved to a telescope at the foot of Mt Woorut, the Mopra Telescope, one little known to most visitors to the mountain as it is hidden around some folds in the surrounding hills.  Mopra is a radio telescope, or more correctly a millimetre-wave telescope, and my research career had moved from studying the hot molecular gas heated by shocks waves around young stars to the cold molecular gas from which these stars had formed. Mopra also happens to be the biggest telescope at Siding Spring, and the dish, at 22m in diameter, is 5 times the size of the AAT.

The bush fire came so, so close to burning down the Mopra Telescope on the 13 January, 2013.  Amazingly, while the living quarters were gutted by the fire, the control room adjacent to it survived and the fire simply swept over the telescope itself.  We were up and running once more by the middle of the year.  Mopra still remains the focus of my research activity today, even though I have moved to the other side of the world in Armagh.  For astronomers now rarely need to go to the telescopes they use.  The internet makes it possible to run their toys from anywhere in the world!  So now, rather than making the trip out to Australia to sit amongst the kangaroos, I simply sit at my desk in Armagh, looking out to the Robinson Dome where our Grubb telescope is, to set my observing scripts going.  Not as much fun, that’s for sure, but much more practical!

The author standing beside the Mopra telescope a few months after the fire.


Professor Michael Burton

Director, Armagh Observatory and Planetarium