Increasing levels of light pollution across the globe have made it harder to see the night sky in all its star-speckled, awe-inspiring glory. Fortunately, Australia is rich in dark, remote places – many with excellent night-sky tours so you can learn more.
New South Wales is the region for celestial appreciation experiences and the perfect destination for budding astronomers in the family. The clear night canopy above the vast outback is also ideal for naked-eye stargazing – a guitar and a campfire are optional.
A mere six hours from Sydney, Coonabarabran has a population of only 3200 but proudly wears the title 'Astronomy capital of Australia'. It's widely recognised as an ideal place for stargazing thanks to its pristine air, high altitude (505m) and low humidity. And yes, the town's name is a mouthful, so locals simply call it Coona.
Coona's skies are so clear, the Australian National University chose to set up Siding Spring Observatory just west of the town, on the edge of the beautiful Warrumbungle National Park. The site is home to telescopes belonging to national and international institutions and includes the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope, the largest optical (visible light) telescope in Australia.
Siding Spring is a working research observatory and has no public stargazing facilities, but there's a visitors centre where you can boggle your mind with solar system facts and figures and be impressed by the scientific output of the site's observatories. For visitors who want to view the heavens firsthand, Coona has a few private observatories offering affordable, family-friendly night sky shows (note that you'll need to phone first, as conditions need to be right for shows to operate).
Rooms with a view
The new Milroy Observatory offers the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere open to the public where a 40-inch device (decommissioned from Siding Spring) sits on a hilltop about 10km outside Coona. The astronomer-in-charge here, Cam Wylie, runs regular 90-minute sessions. In the past, Cam has run roving astronomy shows in the Australian outback and has even set up telescopes on city streets for a spot of 'astronomy busking', so he knows his stuff and how to communicate it. Bring your own DSLR camera and Cam will also help you take a brilliant astro-photograph. Milroy Observatory can cater to groups (it welcomes astronomy societies and university groups) and has a luxurious six-bedroom house on its rural property.
If your mind struggles to comprehend the enormity of space, a local initiative strives to put things in perspective. The 'World's Largest Virtual Solar System Drive' incorporates five driving routes (from Tamworth, Dubbo and other regional centres) that converge on Siding Spring (acting as the 'sun' in this scenario) and show the nine planets (yes, even Pluto) on billboards, complete with sizes and distances in correct proportion, albeit scaled down 38 million times.
Another option for broadening your knowledge is to visit in October, when the Warrumbungle Festival of the Stars celebrates the region's love of astronomy, with guest speakers and open days at the observatories, among other events.
Outback at Broken Hill
Broken Hill takes remoteness to a new level. This fascinating frontier town lies more than 1100km west of Sydney (the region's capital). It's actually closer to Adelaide in the south and even Melbourne.
The Hill is surrounded by vast tracts of outback desert and little else, making it a great place to experience inky black skies and celestial splendour. A local outfit, Outback Astronomy runs night sky shows where enthusiastic presenter Linda Nadge points out constellations and various features visible to the naked eye, and also through powerful binoculars (these are provided).
Viewing is from the comfort of a lounge chair in the great outdoors (so dress appropriately especially on winter nights) at the racecourse on the edge of town. The sky-viewing tour is narrated via a headset. In the course of a show, questions are taken and topics can range from star clusters and constellations to space mining and Aboriginal Australians night-sky mythology.
It pays to note that there are no events during the brightest phase of the moon, or when the weather is bad, like the rare occasions Broken Hill receives rain! In time, Linda hopes to build an observatory, but there's something pretty special about sitting in the great outdoors, miles from any city, and admiring the heavens. On the night we attended, a lightning storm in the distance added an extra element of drama.
Other stargazing opportunities
The large radio telescope 20km north of Parkes became famous thanks to the Australian film The Dish (2000), which told a (somewhat fictionalised) account of the telescope's role in relaying live footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. There's no stargazing here, but there's a good visitors centre with plentiful space info, a 3D theatre, and good explanations on radio astronomy (for the novice, it's the study of radio waves that come from celestial objects).
For night time adventures and DIY naked-eye stargazing, there are loads of great, isolated pockets of NSW. Many of the state's national parks enjoy skies free from light pollution.
In Lightning Ridge, enjoy heavenly vistas while soaking in the unique open-air artesian bore baths) open almost all day and night, and free of charge.
In Dubbo, camping inside the Taronga Western Plains Zoo will give you a taste of safari life, including guided evening walks. 'Poetry on a Plate' is staged three nights a week in the town of Bourke (April to October) and provides a fun campfire experience under starlit skies, complete with bush ballads and a slow-cooked meal.
Get yourself out to outback New South Wales and soak up the stargazing opportunities.
Last updated in October 2017.