With the rarely-seen Mercury revealing itself to us tomorrow morning, we spoke with Sydney Observatory about this, as well as other recently-discovered celestial phenomena.
Hey stargazers! On May 18, Mercury will be at its greatest western elongation, so if you’re up before dawn you might just get to see that somewhat elusive planet. Usually observing Mercury is difficult because its orbit is closer to the sun than the Earth’s, but on those occasions when it reaches its greatest separation from the sun, we get a good chance of seeing Mercury in the early morning sky. This is the kind of awesome celestial event that grabs our astronomical imaginations.
Stars, planets, nebulae, black holes, meteors, supernovas, eclipses – beautiful and mysterious, part of a vast universe about which we know so much and yet so very little. Fortunately for we ordinary folk, we can learn more about astronomy first-hand by visiting one of the 14 or so public observatories around the country.
We spoke with Marnie Ogg, manager of Sydney Observatory at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and asked her a little about astronomy and the work being done at the Observatory.
The Big Smoke: A planetary system with four planets was discovered recently by an amateur astronomer in the Northern Territory. Why is this discovery important and what will astronomers do with this information?
Marnie Ogg: Possibly one of the most interesting things to come from this discovery is the fact that four planets were found in a single solar system. There have been many single planets noted, but this is the first time a multiple planet system has been discovered. As recently as 1992 we were unaware of other planets orbiting their host star, but now there are over 4,000 potential candidates with 3,475 confirmed. 21 of these exoplanets could have the conditions that are just right to start life. Like the Earth, these planets orbit around the Goldilocks Zone – where it’s not too hot and not too cold.
How did all the sophisticated scientific telescopes miss these planets?
For hundreds of years, astronomy was conducted by looking at one object at a time. However with the development of, first photography, CCD and now fibre optics, it’s now possible for telescopes to gather data of up to one million objects at a time. So much information about our galaxy is now being collected that it’s virtually impossible for scientists to analyse it all. For this reason, citizen science projects, such as that which took place during the ABC Stargazing Live event is critical in helping to analyse the data.
Does the Observatory see it as one of its responsibilities to make astronomy – and science in general – more accessible to non-scientists? How effective do you think the Observatory’s programs are in achieving such an aim?
The universe is a nice thing to talk about. It’s pretty and there are lots of cool (and hot!) things in it that grab people’s hearts and minds. This is not hard to do, especially when you’re as passionate about the topic as the guides at the Observatory. All our guides have a thorough understanding of science and astronomy; many are studying or achieving their PhDs in astrophysics during their employment with us. One significant spin-off is that this gives many members of the public their first real opportunity to speak with a working scientist. Over the years, many school students come to us asking for jobs as guides, often years after they came for a visit and were inspired by the great guide they met on their excursion to the Observatory as a child. That’s a real plus because we see enthusiasm for astronomy making a real impact on people’s lives.
The site on Observatory Hill was originally a fort; it became an observatory in 1858, so it has huge historical significance. It’s a valuable piece of history and also houses the oldest telescope (made in 1874) still in use in Australia.
I do believe we are achieving our goal of making science accessible, but there’s always more we can do. I’m always delighted to get feedback on websites like TripAdvisor and Facebook about families who have visited the Observatory, viewed the heavens above and have delighted in this memory enough to encourage others to come along and see it for themselves. It’s by tapping into young minds that we know that we are achieving our goal of being a leading hub of science communication.
What do the astronomers at the Observatory actually do? That is, are they mapping galaxies, making observations or are they there more as science educators for the general public?
Sydney Observatory operates as a museum and public observatory now. Our staff work predominantly as guides and science communicators. Our guests are all ages, abilities and nationalities. After visiting the Observatory, our guests become almost like ambassadors for the world of science.
How do we get more kids to study science at school and then at tertiary level?
There are some interesting projects emerging now that encourage children to study science. One that has begun with Macquarie University recently will see primary school teacher training take place at the Observatory. The aim is to get future teachers comfortable with science – have them experience it first hand and expand their comfort zone with science communication. We understand the impact a good teacher can have in a child’s life, and if we can help create more impactful science teachers in our schools, we should have more students wishing to embrace science and go on to consider a career in the field.
Finally, tell us a little about the historic site of Sydney Observatory.
The site on Observatory Hill was originally a fort; it became an observatory in 1858, so it has huge historical significance. In colonial days, the Observatory had a critical role in timekeeping. Every day at 1pm, the Time Ball signalled the time. This was accompanied by a cannon blast. Ships synchronised the chronometers, allowing for smooth, safe passage for all watercraft. The Post Office set their clocks, and in fact everyone set their watches when the Time Ball dropped.
The original Time Ball is still functioning, which is fantastic when you consider that there are fewer than ten time balls across the world. It’s a valuable piece of our history and is in need of conservation. The Observatory also houses the oldest telescope (made in 1874) still in use in Australia. There’s a lot to do at the Observatory. It’s a great place to visit – in the day or the night.