Road-tripper's guide to the galaxy

Lisa Perkovic finds the best places to star-gaze during the Year of Astronomy.

Sydney Observatory

COL TURNER has been gazing at the stars for more than 40 years. He has tracked a rare transit of Venus past Earth, spotted countless comets and caught sight of an elusive cloud of nebula gas.

Tonight, armed with his observatory-issue laser pointer, he's leading a tour at Sydney Observatory but an ill-placed clump of cloud is putting the professional star searcher to the test. As we wait for the mass to move out of view, he points out other sights: a neon Suncorp sign, fruit bats, the new lights on the Harbour Bridge.

The heritage-listed sandstone observatory was built in 1858 and stands at the top of Observatory Hill, on the site of Sydney's first windmill. It sits high above Millers Point in a small skyscraper-free pocket.

I arrive before the sun has set and I'm inclined to think stars can't compete with 180-degree views of the harbour at dusk but we'll have to wait and see.

The most important astronomer's tool is an absence of light, Turner says, so while the sky fades we file inside the 3D theatre. Technological wizardry soon has us visiting Mars aboard the spacecraft Elysium 7. Half an hour and a few short videos later, we step outside for Turner's tour of the sky.

To enable a closer look at the stars, the observatory has two telescopes: a 29-centimetre lens telescope from 1874 and a more modern, 42-centimetre computer-controlled version.

They are in large domes at the top of the building. In one, the heritage telescope swings out like the boom on a boat, tracking a course across the dark expanse. Turner twists the toggles and I'm soon squinting at Venus, shimmering 48 million kilometres away. The computerised telescope is a more accurate device, with a database storage system finding stars like a Google search. Type in your favourite constellation, click enter and the white cylindrical telescope turns to the correct co-ordinates. With each new position, a motorised chain shifts the entire roof until a slit lines up with the telescope's path. In earlier days, assistants manually lined up the roof.

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Through the computerised telescope we peek at the red giant star Betelgeuse, the star-cluster Pleiades and a grouping called Achemar, which Turner says women associate with diamond earrings. To me they look like a perfect pair of two-carat studs.

The treasures inside Sydney Observatory appeal to a range of interests. Astronauts-in-the-making will enjoy the planetarium; astronomy buffs will find the telescopic views captivating; and historians can examine the artefacts. Historical records from days when the observatory kept time for the city and glass-encased photoheliographs, used to photograph the sun, are glimpses into the past, when what was written in the stars affected everyday life.

Sydney Observatory, on Watson Road in The Rocks, is open daily 10am-5pm and 6.15-10pm. Entry is free during the day; bookings for night visits are essential, phone 9921 3485 or see sydneyobservatory.com.au. To celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, 400 years since Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky, Sydney Observatory will hold several special events, including a Treasures of Sydney Observatory history and star-gazing night on April 19 and the Festival of the Stars in July.

Linden Observatory

Just off the Great Western Highway at Woodford, Linden Observatory is in the shadows of the Blue Mountains. Sydney's lights have leached to a dim glow here and the stars are incredibly bright.

On Saturdays closest to the new moon, the Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group holds observing nights for enthusiasts. Members with telescopes of all shapes and sizes gather on the lawn in front of the main viewing platform and are keen to help visitors pick out a galaxy or two.

Linden Observatory, 105 Glossop Road, Linden. Entry $5; phone 0416 292 020 or see wsaag.org. Starry Starry Night is a special night for children, to be held on May 2. Phone the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre on 4787 8877 for more information.

CSIRO Parkes radio telescope

Almost daily, visitors ask staff if they can play cricket on "the dish" of CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope, as the characters in the eponymous movie did. The answer is always no but there are plenty of other things to do at the world's fourth-largest radio telescope.

In astronomical circles, the device has been famous since 1969, when it received transmissions of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon. But it wasn't until 2000 that the site captured the nation's attention. With its starring role in The Dish, the 1000-tonne piece of equipment leapt to fame; visitor numbers were boosted immediately and haven't diminished yet. Almost 120,000 people travel each year to the middle of a sheep paddock near Parkes to view one of our most important pieces of radio telescopic equipment. Too much work goes on inside the telescope for public tours but the site itself is open for viewing and there's a great astronomy resource display.

"This is an icon of Australian science," says Lyn Milgate, who works at the visitors' centre. "People should open their minds to a different kind of science and appreciate this."

Operations scientist John Sarkissian, who is involved in pulsar research and systems development at the site, lists the telescope's achievements like a proud parent.

"The dish is king of pulsar discoveries: it's detected more pulsars, compacted star remains, than the world's other telescopes combined."

CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope is on the Newell Highway, 15 minutes' drive from Parkes. Entry to the visitors' centre is free; theatre entry is $6.50 adults, $5 concession, $20 families. There will be open days on July 18-19 to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. Phone 6861 1777 or see csiro.au/parkesdish.

Dubbo Observatory

After a day watching lions on the savannah, the Dubbo Observatory is the perfect vantage point from which to view more docile subjects. Behind the grounds of Western Plains Zoo, visitors can peer through a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at faraway galaxies. For those who want a little more intergalactic action, there's the 18-hole Astro mini-golf course behind the observatory. The course winds through worm holes and rocket launch sites. You can putt through planets, chip past a scale model of Stonehenge and manoeuvre around Dr Who's Tardis.

Dubbo Observatory is at 17L Camp Road, Dubbo. Open nightly and every day except Wednesday. Entry $20 adults, $14 concession, $50 families. Phone 6885 3022 or see dubbotourism.com.au. Astro mini-golf is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday and every day during school holidays. Prices are $7/$6/$20.

Bathurst Observatory

After the sun has set on the Bathurst Goldfields and the last fossickers have packed away their pans, another sort of treasure hunter begins his search. Instead of sifting through the dirt, astronomers at Bathurst Observatory look to the sky, scouring the abyss with complicated treasure maps and blueprints of the heavens. From the base of Mount Panorama, constellations sparkle like diamonds. If the search proves fruitless or if the sky is cloudy, the Space Theatre Planetarium simulates flying tours of the solar system. Observatory tours are conducted for the public every second Friday of the month.

Bathurst Observatory is at 624 Rossmore Park, Limekilns Road, Kelso. Entry is $10 and school tours are available, phone 6332 2022 or see bathurstgoldfields.com.au. To help celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, the observatory will reduce admission prices and hold Highlights in Sky tours on April 3-4. Bookings are essential.

Magellan Observatory

In the Southern Tablelands, near Lake Bathurst, this privately owned observatory operates with the slogan "three hours from Sydney - light years from care" and aims to provide a truly galactic experience.

The Magellan Observatory conducts sky tours using a computerised telescope with additional individual telescopes available for night hire. If you've ever dreamed of making an astronomical discovery, you can book in for a weekend astronomy trip and practise playing the reclusive star-gazer. Rooms directly under the telescope are fitted out with two single beds, a stove and a solar-powered chemical toilet, perfect for avid star-gazers who don't intend to get much sleep. Nearby is more comfortable accommodation for watching the heavens: a self-catering three-bedroom house.

Magellan Observatory is at 461 Covan Creek Road, Lake Bathurst. Accommodation for two nights is from $100 for two people. Phone 4849 4489 or see home.goulburn.net.au/-magellan/.

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