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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Perth Observatory is out of this world

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Perth Observatory is located just 35kms from Perth city, about a 40 minute drive into the Korung National Park, at 337 Walnut Road, Bickley.

Run by a dedicated team of 5 full time paid staff and 120 volunteers there are four telescopes at the centre. The observatory is located in an Australian bush setting, in amongst the Korung National Park. The grass around the buildings is kept short by the many grazing kangaroos that feed here. A truly Aussie experience.

two kangaroos in a park, one lazes on the ground, and the baby tries to get a feed from its mother

Perth Observatory is now a science outreach facility and also runs various tours for the public.

Their tours are often booked out in advance, so get in quick if you are travelling to Perth and wish to do a tour.

Both modern and historic telescopes are used to enable you to see globular clusters, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, satellites and meteors. This all depends on the weather conditions and the lighting conditions of the moon at the time. The night tours show and teach people about astronomy and astrophotography.

On Sundays people can come and do a guided day tour, between 11am and 3pm, and learn more about the centre and its history. If it is sunny they can look through the solar telescope at the sun.

If you cannot make it to the Observatory, every second Wednesday evening they hold a virtual star party on youtube. Check their website for more details:

Also on offer at various times are astrophotography workshops, meteor shower viewing nights and school group tours.

I had the pleasure of meeting the extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff member Matt Woods, when visiting the Observatory.

Matt said that 2/3 of the world cannot see the night sky due to city light and smog pollution. People visiting often remark that they were “Completely amazed” to see stars in the sky. In fact in 2003 there was a blackout to more than 50 million people in the United States and parts of Canada. The night sky had never been visible to them before, and now the naked eye could see the lights of the Milky Way. Thousands of people were ringing Emergency Services to report an invasion of UFOs.

Mark said that telescopes are getting bigger, the quality is getting better, and the AI is improving. XO planets (those planets that move around other stars) can possibly be discovered with the increases in technology. Even amateur astronomers can find planets. Matt also said that in the coming years there is a high probability of discovering new planets, asteroids, comets and supernovas.

From 1901 to 1919 the observatory mapped the sky for the Carte du ceil project, which aimed to map the entire sky. The project was finished incomplete in 1930. Now, the entire sky is mapped every month by the European Space Agency’s Gaia telescope.

The rings of Uranus were co-discovered by Perth in 1977. Matt said that most children’s favourite planet is Pluto, the most recent found. Pluto is technically not a planet since 2006 as it fails of the 3 rules to be classed as a planet. Poor Pluto.

Matt also said that a lot of people think the planets and moons are dead, void of life. However, moons are very interesting and, depending on the moon, have volcanoes, underground oceans and even geysers. It is definitely worth learning more about this at the tours.

Started in 1896 the observatory was able to correctly tell the exact time and relay the information to Fremantle harbour.

The 30 inch obsession telescope at the Observatory can see millions of light years away.

a large telescope for looking at the night sky, in a dome

The Astrographic telescope was one of the very first telescopes here and has been recently renovated. It was first bought in 1897 and in 1901 moved to its present location. It was used to take photos of the sky, one of the telescopes to look through and one to take the photograph on a glass plate. Originally it took 5 minutes to get the photo on the glass plate. With improvements in photography it now takes 20 seconds to get a digital image of the same scene. Sydney and Melbourne also used this type of telescope when mapping the sky.

a modern telescope that can see the stars and planets in the universe

An indigenous outdoor pavilion was painted by Peter Farmer Jr and James Egan painting the male side (on the left below). The female side (on the right below) was painted by Kylie Graham and Sharyn Egan. Dream students at Governor Stirling High School assisted with the painting and the hands of those who had a role in this pavilion are painted on the walls as well. Indigenous tours will start there in 2021.

Inside the museum there are some wonderful treasures. In 1729 an Atlas Coelestis was created of the constellations that could be seen from Greenwich observatory, by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. Only 200 were published and only 10 left in the world, three of these are in Greenwich.

Since 2001 a copy was donated by Ethelwin Flamsteed Moffatt (nee Winzar), a direct descendant of the original author John Flamsteed. Perth Observatory named an asteroid after her – 5542 Moffatt.

a copy of an old atlas is kept under glass

You can also adopt a star from here. All stars in the program are visible to the naked eye or visible by binoculars, in the Southern Hemisphere.

On display in the museum is the 1991 digital camera…“the first ever digital camera of any type owned in Western Australia, and only the second ever digital camera ever to enter WA. The only digital camera before this one, owned by the University of Maryland brought out here for a few weeks for Halley’s Comet observations in 1986.”

The technological advancements that have been made since 1991 always surprise me when looking back, where most of us now carry a digital camera on our flat mobile phones.

one of the first ever digital cameras with instructions on how to use it

While here, you can check out the museum and browse through their sky related gift shop for that perfect souvenier.

I found the Observatory to be a great way to learn more about the beauty of the Southern Hemisphere skies and how fortunate Western Australia is to have this facility available to educate and enjoy.

Happy Travels!

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