Outback Outreach (part three!)
I've just got back from my third trip out to the Murchison region of WA. It was also the third time I've been up there to do public outreach - far more than I'd imagined when I took this job! I was hoping to visit the proposed site for the SKA once (if I was lucky) while I was here, even if I had to take a holiday to do it, but despite the region having a very low population density, I've done three trips up there to do public outreach in less than a year.
The first was to visit the school at the remote Aboriginal community of Pia Wadjarri, the second was with a group of Aboriginal artists who were working on pieces for an astronomy-themed exhibition. This one was to run an observing evening for the Meekatharra School of the Air kids who were camping at Boolardy station. Because the population is so sparse up there, the kids are taught over the airwaves until they go off to secondary school. Several times a year, they all get together in one place and have a camp.
It was a long way to go for one evening, but it was worth it. The kids were brilliant. They had some unusual questions, but I was expecting that. I guess they have a slightly different outlook on life than kids who go to school in Perth. Some of them knew quite a lot, so giving answers that everyone understood was something of a challenge.
This time I went up with Tim Colegate, a PhD student at CIRA. I picked up the 4x4 (a Toyota Prado) in the morning and (by the time we'd loaded everything) we set off for Geraldton sometime between 11am and noon. It rained a lot. They were short showers, but they were heavy and frequent. We got to Geraldton late afternoon and went for some food in town. Being a Monday, the place was rather quiet, but the little Italian place was open, so we ate in there.
We had a few errands to run in Gero on Tuesday morning, so we set off for Boolardy late morning. After all the recent rain, the dirt road north from Pindar was still open, but there were some big puddles. We arrived at Boolardy, with a pretty dirty 4x4, at about 3pm and met some of the kids before driving out to the telescope site for a quick nose around. We got back and the clouds still hadn't lifted, so we had to change the plans slightly. By the time dinner was over (two camp-oven stews created in a cook-off between two teams!), the clouds were patchy enough that it was worth getting out the 8-inch Dob (but not the motorised 5-inch as it would take too long to set up).
We split the group into two: half looked at the Moon through the Dob with Tim, while the others played with a radio receiver and MWA dipole with me, then swapped over. As there are no radio stations in the Murchison, we hooked up Tim's FM transmitter to an iPod and challenged the kids to find the signal! The clouds cleared enough to let everyone see Saturn by the end of the evening. Once the kids had gone to bed, it cleared up beautifully of course... so we showed the adults Jupiter which had just risen, and a whole bunch of Milky Way highlights, before packing up, finally, at 11pm.
Today we drove all the way back from Boolardy, skipping the detour to Geraldton this time as Marissa from MSOTA had offered to return the 8-inch for us. We left Boolardy at about 9am with some directions from Carolyn at Boolardy on the most efficient route back to Perth. It involved a lot of driving on dirt roads (great fun - and what 4x4's are actually meant for...) and a lot of small towns, but it was fun.
As we had more time than we would have if we'd gone via Geraldton, we took a short detour to New Norcia. The place was founded by Benedictine monks a couple of hundred years ago and has some buildings which are totally out of character with what you'd ecxpect in WA. It also has a tracking station, used to send commands and receive transmissions from spacecraft. So, being a geek, I stopped to take a photo. By the time we got back to Perth, Tim and I had driven more than 1500 km between us.
All in all, another great trip. And it's unlikely to be the last as we are planning to visit many more of the remote schools to run astronomy days like we did at Pia last year. I can't wait. It's so different up there, so quiet and peaceful. I feel more at home up there than I do in the city!