It’s hardly a tough crowd at the Cosmos centre on a Monday night. The grey nomads have unhooked their caravans or trailers, donned colourful woollen scarves and beanies and loosened up their shoulder muscles in pre-stargazing anticipation. The friendly folk at the door of the shed show the mostly-city crew what country hospitality is all about. There is not a local in sight, myself and the guides excluded, although I am recently arrived so probably still classed as a blow-in. Our host, Jane, tells us it took a lot of chook raffles to build the observatory. She has the nomads eating out of her palm before they’ve even seen the telescopes.
We head out to the shed with our pupils raring to dilate. As the roof slides back and the temperature plummets, Jane begins explaining things about focal lengths and cluster stars. I hastily check that my plus-one, a certified grey nomad complete with a camper trailer and a work-free schedule, has no idea what these terms mean. My aunt is also clueless. Luckily, Jane caters to such amateurs and I quickly grasp how far away a light year is. A bloody long way. The terms light-year and light-speed are bandied about as if we’re talking about the distance to Birdsville, or Perth. Then, Jane breaks out her laser pointer which looks as if its kissing the stars. “I wish I had a pointer like that,” one nomad whispered to her husband.
Jane points out a seemingly inconsequential star, with a double-barrelled name I cannot recall. The one next to it is Saturn, she tells us in revered tones, the lord of the rings. Apparently it is the pulverised rocks reflecting off the sun that allow us to see the rings around the gassy planet when we all bustle around the three telescopes. “If Earth is a pea, Saturn is a basketball,” our telescope attendant, Karen, tells us helpfully putting Saturn’s size in perspective. She adds that it’s about minus-180 degrees up there, spoiling the idea that we are hard done by in the chilly night air. “Oh it’s pretty fascinating,” one lady gushes into the telescope. My aunt reckons she thought it’d be much bigger.
Jane explains things well, talking of the milk in the Milky Way and describing stars as either toddlers, mature stars who have left home or dead stars. There’s enough science talk to impress the few amateur astronomers hanging around the stripped back shed and enough fluff to impress the others. We check out the jewel box cluster, where Jane handily describes the stars as grouping together like bees to a honey pot. Then the telescopes are pointed directly up, although Jane admits the machines don’t like standing on their heads. The audience heartily agree that they also don’t like that position. Jane shows us M6, a catalogue star that we would not be able to see without the telescope. A couple of shooting stars wow us all in the middle of Jane’s show. “Ah, a bit of comet rubbish,” she says, cheerfully dismissing them. We move on to the pair of stars the Cosmos ladies call Sapphire and Topaz. The blokes laconically prefer to call this duo the blue and yellow double star. The stars actually twinkle through the scope, reminding me of a blazing campfire. A few geezers in the group are clearly impressed with the crisp country sky. ‘You wouldn’t get this in the city,” one bloke tells his pal.
We are shown Omega Centauri, a globular cluster. “Can you see a ball of stars,” the attendant asks one eager amateur. “Yes, I can see a fuzz ball,” he replies. “That’s about 5 to 10 million stars.” We are told that we’re now in deep sky. I reckon that sounds delightfully like astro smut.
Jane points out a few extra stars and some creative constellations. I struggle to join the dots to create a dolphin or a fly. The rest of the group nod their heads and murmur that they’ve seen the designs, but I was doubtful whether some of the crew even had their glasses back on. The general consensus was that the Greek astronomers had drunk far too much red wine when they saw the fancy shapes in the night sky. However, the Aboriginal spirit god and the emu standing on its head were as easy to spot as a dead roo at dusk. Jane promises that once we’ve seen these shapes we’ll be able to impress our mates at barbeques forever. It’s an exciting thought. We were all getting pretty cold by the end of the show and a fair few of the crowd were stomping their feet to warm up. There was even talk of kettles being put to boil. And so the nomads headed back to their camps and their kettles with another outback tale for their mates back home.