An abode of legend and intrigue, the night sky has long been a source of fascination for mystics, scholars and daydreamers. From the wise elders of Indigenous Australia, to the druids of ancient Britain and skilled astronomers of Persia, mankind has been mesmerised and inspired by the timeless majesty of the stars above since time immemorial.
Image courtesy of Jon Condon, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and our interest in the solar system has in no way waned. While mystics and fortune-tellers may be few and far between in contemporary Western Australia, the state does boast several observatories where scientists study the movements of the planets in our night skies. Throughout the state, there is also a growing interest in stargazing amongst the general populace, and numerous astronomy clubs and photography tours have been popping up over the last decade or so. There is even a special name for these activities: astrotourism.
From the vast wilderness areas of the Pilbara and Kimberley regions to Western Australia's south-west, astrotourism in its various forms is growing markedly in popularity. The following paragraphs aim to introduce Western Australian stargazers to some of the best astrotourism activities, events and destinations in our beautiful state.
Image courtesy of Jesus NuNez, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Western Australia's oldest observatory, Perth Observatory, was established in 1896, at a time when the fledgling colony was experiencing unprecedented growth, due to the discovery of gold. Originally situated on Mount Eliza in West Perth, the observatory was relocated to its current site at Bickley in 1966.
Image courtesy of the Perth Observatory Facebook page
Although Perth Observatory is just 25 kilometres from central Perth, its position in the Perth Hills enables it to be largely free from the city's light pollution - thus making it an ideal spot for aspiring astronomers to indulge in their passion. Throughout the year, the observatory hosts a range of fascinating and informative programs for star-gazing enthusiasts of all ages and levels of enthusiasm.
A guided day tour is a great way to spend your first visit to Perth Observatory. On this tour, a knowledgeable guide will escort you around the site, explaining its history and the various telescopes that are housed there. Other popular tours include night sky tours, winter night tours, and Focusing on our Moon tours – all of which, as their names suggest, take place in the evenings.
Sundays, from 1pm until 4pm, are a particularly good time to visit the observatory, and visitors can choose from a range of tours such as a Guided Site Tour, Solar Experience Tour, and Museum Tour. Finally, for something totally out of this world, you can even take a romantic Valentine's Night Tour, and gaze at the wonders of the solar system with your beloved.
In addition, Perth Observatory offers regular lectures for those with a serious interest in astronomy, as well as a range of astrophotography workshops and other special events. To keep up-to-date with the latest happenings, visit the Perth Observatory website
Gravity Discovery Centre and Observatory
Another awesome spot for budding astronomers is the Gravity Discovery Centre and Observatory, situated approximately an hour north of Perth. A wonderful destination for visitors old and young, the centre offers a range of educational experiences and attractions, centred on the mysteries of the universe, as well as the biodiversity of the local area. Daytime visitors can experience the amazing Cosmology Gallery, climb the iconic Leaning Tower of Gin Gin, enjoy the Solar System Walk, and much, much more. Tours of the observatory are a particular highlight for many visitors, although it's advisable to book well ahead.
Image courtesy of the Gravity Discovery Centre and Observatory website
The Gravity Discovery Centre is extremely family-friendly, and youngsters will relish the many opportunities it provides for educational play and exploration. During the school holidays, the centre frequently hosts fun interactive programs for children aged from five to twelve.
Night-time visits to the Gravity Discovery Centre are also a treat for stargazing enthusiasts. During these special evening programs, visitors can view the night skies through the observatory's telescopes, accompanied by a knowledgeable and experienced local facilitator. On occasions when, due to unforeseen circumstances, the weather is not conducive, an enjoyable and informative presentation will be held instead at the Gravity Discovery Centre Theatre and Cosmology Gallery. From time to time, Aboriginal Astronomy Nights are also held, allowing participants to gain a privileged insight into the role of the night sky in the local Noongar people's sacred Dreaming.
Image courtesy of the Gravity Discovery Centre and Observatory Facebook page
The Gravity Discovery Centre is open to the public on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 10am until 4pm, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday, from 10am until 7.30pm. Unless there is a public holiday, Mondays are closed.
The centre is located at 1098 Military Road, Yeal – approximately 28 kilometres west of Gin Gin. For more information, visit the Gravity Discovery website
Located in the heart of West Perth, Scitech has long been a favourite haunt of Western Australian science geeks. Whether you're eager to delve into the mysteries of the universe, or would like to simply expand your knowledge of science, mathematics and technology, you'll find plenty of cool interactive exhibits to entertain and inspire you. However, although the constantly-changing interactive exhibits relating to the various branches of science are always popular, the main drawcard for budding astronomers is Scitech's incredible Planetarium, where you can view an immersive projection of the universe on a massive dome above. Visit Scitech's website
to find out more.
Geraldton Astro Tours
Image courtesy of the Scitech website
Five hours north of Perth, Geraldton is another place to marvel at the wonders of the universe, under the guidance of an expert local stargazer. Astro Star Tours offers a range of astro-experiences on the outskirts of the city, including tuition on astrophotography. Taking place on both moonlit and dark nights, their Star Tour is an awesome experience, suitable for groups of any size and age group. In contrast, smaller groups of participants who want to delve more deeply into particular aspects of the universe, may find the Deep Sky Tour of more interest.
Image courtesy of Geraldton Astro Star Tours
Night sky photography experiences offered by Astro Star Tours include wonderful Nightscape Tours, as well as Camera Tours, during which you can attach your DSLR camera to their telescopes, and take colour pictures of what you see. There are also Phone Tours which demonstrate how to conveniently capture photos of the Moon and other astral bodies, using the camera on your mobile phone.
Astro Star Tours take place at Giles Park in Moonyoonooka, about twenty minutes east of central Geraldton. To find out more and make bookings, check out the Astro Star Tours website
Image courtesy of the Geraldton Astronomy Group (INC) Facebook page
You can find more information on all things related to astronomy in the Mid-West on the Geraldton Astronomy Group Facebook page
Western Australian Space Centre - Minganew
Venturing inland, Minganew is another hot spot to indulge in some celestial sky-scanning. Located south east of Geraldton, it's the closest town to the Western Australian Space Centre and Satellite Ranging Facility, where a number of space industry organisations such as Geoscience Australia, Capricorn Space and the Australian Maritime Authority maintain operations. Established approximately forty years ago, the centre is overseen by NASA, and although it's generally closed to the public, from time to time open days are held. Check out the Minganew community website
to learn more about the Minganew Space Centre, and when the next of these events will take place.
Image courtesy of the Shire of Minganew website
Due to its exceptional dark skies, the town of Minganew actively promotes itself as a stargazing destination, with several spots in and near the town being particularly good viewing areas. Situated on the Midlands Road, between Minganew and Three Springs, Yandanooka is highly recommended. The hamlet's historic community hall boasts an outdoor planisphere and convenient viewing pad for enthusiasts. Minganew Hockey Oval and nearby Coalstream Conservation Park are also good local viewing spots, low in light pollution.
Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum
Celebrating the role of Carnarvon in the early space industry, Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum focuses on the stories behind both the Carnarvon Space Station and OTC Satellite Earth Station. The museum is located in the Satellite Earth Station, approximately six kilometres from Carnarvon, and is open seven days a week, throughout the year.
Image courtesy of Calistemon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
For more information, including opening hours, visit the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum website
The vast and mysterious Pilbara region boasts some of the best dark sky conditions in the world, and is developing a reputation for quality astrotourism experiences. Taking place from April to September each year, Remtek Astronomy conducts stargazing tours at Dales Campground in the spectacular Karajini National Park. The area in which the tour takes place is encircled by an unparalleled 360 degree view of the night sky – a glittering canopy overhead of stars, planets and other celestial phenomena. Due to the remote location of this natural planetarium, there is virtually no light pollution, and the views are incredibly clear. As well as having the opportunity to view the cosmos through three large telescopes, participants can also learn many interesting facts from the tour's experienced and knowledgeable guide. Remtak's stargazing experiences last approximately two and a half hours. Visit the Remtak Astronomy website
to find out more.
Broome – and the Kimberley Region
Image courtesy of the Remtrek Astronomy website
The Kimberley Region in Western Australia's remote and rugged far north is also renowned for its dark skies, and possesses unparalleled opportunities for stargazing. A good place to get acquainted with the region's celestial splendour is the Broome Astronomy Experience, also known as Astro Tours.
Image courtesy of the Broome Astro Tours website
Hosted by well-known local astronomer Greg Quicke – also known affectionately as Space Gandolf, due to his flowing silver hair and beard – these awe-inspiring odysseys throughout the galaxy take place during the region's dry season (April until November), at a location approximately twenty minutes drive out of town. Using big telescopes, lasers and loads of fun, the experience lasts for two-and-a-half hours, and is suitable for well-behaved older children as well as adults. To find out more, check out the Astro Tours website
Image courtesy of the Broome Astro Tours website
While you're up in the far north, make sure to also take time to detour to Wolfe Creek Crater, where a massive meteorite collided with earth around 300,000 years ago. Located approximately 145 kilometres from Hall's Creek, along the rugged Tanami Road, the area is now protected by the Wolfe Creek Crater National Park. Find out more here
Southwest Western Australia
Image courtesy of Happy Little Nomad, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Last but not least, Western Australia's southwest also boasts a committed community of astronomy enthusiasts. The Astronomical Society of the South West holds regular public viewing sessions at their observatory in College Grove, Bunbury. These special evenings involve a short presentation about astronomy and what celestial objects are currently visible, and opportunities to view the night sky through the club's and member's telescopes.
Image courtesy of the Astronomical Society of the South West Facebook page
To find out about upcoming events, take a look at the Astronomical Society of the South West's website
Some Final Words
Aspiring astronomers with their own telescopes will find that the sky is the limit for a stargazing odyssey in Western Australia. The locations mentioned above are simply the tip of the iceberg. In addition to these, there are many other places where you can set up camp, and gaze at the night sky to your heart's content. Some particularly popular destinations include Lake Ballard near Menzies, the Dryandra Woodland National Park near Narrogin, the Cape Range National Park (bordering World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef), the rugged southern coastline, and Wave Rock near Hyden. There are also many other dramatic granite outcrops scattered throughout the Wheatbelt region, including Elachbutting Rock, Beringbooding Rock, and Kokerbin Rock. These are also good viewing spots – without the crowds.
Plenty of support is also available for complete beginners who don't have their own equipment, with loads of cool workshops and special events taking place regularly throughout Perth and regional Western Australia. Astonomy WA is the state's astronomy and space science community, and one of several organisations involved in Astrofest, held annually at Curtin University. This dynamic and interactive festival is a great spot for astronomy enthusiasts, old and young, to connect and develop their knowledge. It includes presentations by expert astronomers, tours, exhibitions, and opportunities to view the night sky through big telescopes. Other highlights include children's activities and an incredible astrophotography exhibition. Visit the Astronomy WA website
to find out more.
Image courtesy of the Stargazers Club of Western Australia Facebook page
The Stargazers Club of Western Australia is another great organisation for beginners, and runs several events each year. This friendly community of astronomy enthusiasts strives to introduce newcomers to the science in a fun, interactive way, and offers classes in astronomy, telescopes and astrophotography. Learn more about the club on their website
Another awesome place to learn more about astronomy is Astro Observatories Western Australia, located at Stoneville, in the Perth Hills. Operated by an experienced local astrophotographer, the business provides a great range of creative astrophotography workshops, as well the potential for remote telescope hosting. Find out more here
Finally, other exciting stargazing events and experiences are listed on the Astrotourism Western Australia website
. Be sure to check this website regularly to find out what is happening on the celestial circuit, here in Western Australia.