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Astrofest: WAs largest event celebrating the International Year of Astronomy CREDIT: Scitech
Saturday 28th November 2009 is not a day I'm going to forget in a hurry. It was the culmination of a year of planning, many meetings and a lot of effort, resulting in the largest International Year of Astronomy event in Western Australia and the biggest star party the state has ever seen.

Almost exactly a year ago Pete Wheeler, then the manager of Horizon the Planetarium at Scitech, had the idea of running a large astronomy festival in Perth as part of IYA. The idea was to find a large space and have a big event, drawing in as large a number of people as we could, as a grand finale to the IYA celebrations in the state. When I got involved in the early stages of planning, I don't think I quite realised what I was taking on!

There were a lot of people involved in all of this, but the main organisers, "Team Astrofest", were Pete (now at ICRAR), Kelly at Scitech, and myself. Throughout the year there were numerous meetings of the wider group of people involved in the organisation: Scitech, BTOW, Curtin, Perth Observatory, AGWA, ASWA, the Mars Society Australia... basically everyone involved in the Astronomy WA collaboration. There were also visits to the venue, meetings with campus security and marketing, and lots of issues to solve. It was a lot of effort, but really it all went pretty smoothly for such a large-scale event.

Friday was spent running around picking up various items, shifting tables, display screens and chairs, and generally getting the venue ready to go. I met Pete at the venue at 8am, unloaded the van, then went round the city collecting show bags, bottles, telescopes, table cloths, prints, posters and so on, then arranging the venue. We didn't stop until about 8pm.

We'd expected, and planned for, a turn out of around 2000, but by Friday we had had almost 1000 pre-registrations through the Astronomy WA website. Since registration was optional, we were suddenly aware that we could have a very big crowd on our hands.

Saturday dawned clear and warm. Pete and Kelly picked me up at about half eight and I had a ride to the venue in the back of the van surrounded by kids models! Volunteers started turning up fairly soon after we arrived and the hall slowly came to life. Stalls started to appear, the big screen went up, telescopes started appearing on the oval, the outdoor PA was delivered and assembled, shade domes and marquees went up, the Moonwalker ride appeared, Victoria Park Scouts set up their barbecue, and an MWA tile was constructed. We couldn't have asked for better weather; it was clear all day with only a little bit of cirrus around during the afternoon, with a maximum temperature of 32 degrees. By lunchtime the venue was looking pretty good and things were generally going well. We had a briefing for all helpers in the main hall, then got set to welcome the public.

There was only a trickle at first, but it soon picked up and the hall started filling with families peering through telescopes, looking at The World At Night exhibition, examining the entries to the kids art and model competitions and the astrophotography competition, and talking to the helpers running the stalls. Outside the stadium we had a Kids Zone with fun activities, Scitech science shows, solar and lunar viewing, water rocket launching, and planetarium shows. We had a series of guest speakers on the main stage thoughout the day, each giving 20 minute talks on different astronomical topics, and the main guest speaker was Professor Fred Watson from the AAO talking about "Pluto and the uber-nerds".

After the main lecture, the event moved outside for an evening of telescope viewing organised by Peter Birch from Scitech. There were around sixty telescopes of all shapes and sizes provided by AGWA, BTOW, Perth Observatory, Scitech, Curtin and ASWA looking at a selection of different objects. We were also treated to a magnitude -8 Iridium flare at about 9.07pm which was pretty spectacular (we ordered it specially!).

By the time we finished packing up the hall, shifting the 300+ chairs and 50-odd tables back where they had come from, most people had left. There were still a few telescopes out observing and still quite a few members of the public enjoying the views, but it was 10.30pm and the event was supposed to be ending anyway. Those of us who were still left had a celebratory beer and then went on our way home to try and sleep.

Despite having done two very long days and not eating very much, I just couldn't sleep. I think it might have had something to do with the combination of caffeine, adrenalin and sugar... I can't speak for the rest of Team Astrofest, but having had a turnout of over 4000 (yes, that's four thousand, twice what we had hoped for), perfect weather and such a good event, I was on such a natural high that it will probably take a while to recover.

Huge, huge thanks go to everyone who helped out with the planning and organisation, all those who volunteered their time to set up and run stalls in the exhibition space and outdoor activities, the organisations who provided financial or in-kind support, everyone who entered the competitions, and of course all those who turned out on the day to enjoy the event.

Biggest thanks go to Pete and Kel for being such a great team to work with. I had a blast guys. Same time next year?

Posted by Megan on Monday 30th Nov 2009 (13:06 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Stars, thunderstorms and craters

As part of our outreach programme we've been visiting schools in the Gascoyne/Murchison region of Western Australia, both in towns and in remote communities. Last week saw another of these road trips, this time visiting three schools in the east of the region. It was my fifth visit to the outback and by far the furthest I've ever driven in my life. The plan was to drive out to Geraldton on Monday with John Goldsmith, meeting up with Rob Hollow from the ATNF, before heading out to the community of Yulga Jinna on the Tuesday, Meekatharra on the Wednesday, and Cue on Thursday, heading back to Geraldton on Friday and arriving back in Perth on Saturday. The plan was to run viewing nights in each of the schools along the way. Unfortunately for us, however, the weather wasn't optimal.

I left Perth late on Monday morning with John and a four-wheel drive packed with telescopes. The weather forecast for the region was not looking spectacular, but it wasn't too bad on the way up to Geraldton so we were optimistic. We picked up Rob and left town at 9am the next day, heading straight for our first destination: the community of Yulga Jinna, some 100km north of the town of Meekathara. With a quick stop for lunch at the roadhouse in Mount Magnet, we arrived in Yulga Jinna seven hours later to thick cloud. Most of the drive had been under clear skies, but leaving Meekatharra after refueling we had been driving straight for the thickest cloud bank in the sky. This didn't worry us too much as there was always the possibility that it might clear, and it wasn't actually dumping rain (which is always a good thing when you're traveling on dirt roads). Arriving at Yulga Jinna, we met the principle and weighed up the weather. It didn't look like it was going to shift, so reluctantly we had to cancel the viewing night. Even so, some of the kids came back to the school as it was going dark anyway. We couldn't show them anything in the sky, so I tried teaching them to juggle instead. I ended up having a game of catch with about ten kids - my juggling balls will never be the same again! Frustratingly, the skies did eventually clear, but not until all the kids had long gone.

Moonlight over Yulga Jinna community, Western Australia
Moonlight over Yulga Jinna community, Western Australia CREDIT: Megan

We slept in a classroom with the fans going and all the windows open. The weather had been warm during the day and it was slow to cool off. Since leaving Perth I hadn't worn a watch - time seems pretty relaxed out there. You wake up at dawn, eat when you're hungry and sleep when you're tired. I was wide awake fairly early and outside to watch sunrise. The colours of the outback are fantastic during the day, and just stunning when the Sun is low at either end of the day. Since we hadn't had much luck the previous night, and we were in no rush to get to the next location on our trip as it was less than two hours drive away, we spent an hour or so talking to the older kids in the school. We gave them planispheres and showed them how to use them, and showed them Stellarium which they all thought was really cool. They already had a collection of inflatable planets hanging from the classroom ceiling, and Rob gave them a load of resources on a memory stick, including a copy of Stellarium for their classroom computers.

Rob and John at the Granites, Meekatharra
Rob and John at the Granites, Meekatharra CREDIT: Megan
We left Yulga Jinna mid-morning and, after stopping a few times along the way to look at interesting things, arrived in Meekatharra around lunchtime. The town has a lookout perched on a spoil heap overlooking the town - it's an area with a long history of gold prospecting so there are mines of all shapes and sizes from small one-man operations to massive commercial pits, the heap on which the lookout is built is from one such pit. After calling in at the district high school to check the plan for the evening's viewing night, we explored the area. To the West of town is the airport, a Royal Flying Doctor base and weather station, and to the East is an area known as the Granites: a collection of boulder heaps scattered about the mulga bushes. It's pretty spectacular, and a popular spot for picnics in the past. Following the return of the local troops from the Second World War, a large picnic was held there and the area became known as Peace Gorge.

Viewing night on Meekatharra oval
Viewing night on Meekatharra oval CREDIT: Megan
After a warm, partially cloudy day, the skies became cloudier as the afternoon wore on. By the time we'd finished dinner in the pub, the cloud had set in once again. We went down to the oval and set up anyway, hoping that we might be lucky. As it turned out, we were. While the kids were playing basketball on the nearby courts, we set up and tried to catch Jupiter through the odd gap as the Sun went down. A lot of the kids did get to see it, but the sky was too cloudy to see much else. By the time it cleared up a bit, most of the kids had left. We did however manage to show M31, 47 Tuc and Omega Cen to a family and a couple of teachers who turned up after most of the kids had left.

Old car at the abandoned Yannine townsite
Old car at the abandoned Yannine townsite CREDIT: Megan
Thursday dawned mainly clear but with the by now familiar ominous-looking high cloud. The plan for the day was to head down the road to Cue, explore a bit and then run another viewing night at the primary school there. On the way we stopped to explore the abandoned townsite of Yannine, a town that grew up during the gold-prospecting days but which has long since gone. All that's left is the old railway platform, a few scattered foundations, a rusted car and lots of scattered debris. It was very eerie.

We got in to town mid-morning and went straight to the school. By now the sky was once again covered in thick cloud which looked far more threatening than it had the rest of the week. We met the teachers, extracted all the bits of their telescope from their resource room, cleaned all the optics and watched the weather. It was looking worse every time we checked, and the locals all thought it was set in for the day. In the end we made the call to cancel the viewing night and head back to Geraldton instead, on the grounds that we wouldn't see anything anyway. We did show all the teachers how to put together and use their telescope and Sun Spotter since a lot of the staff were new since Rob's last visit - the staff turnover can be very high at schools in the region.

We left Cue at lunchtime the same day and headed for Geraldton. Instead of going back down the sealed road through Mount Magnet, we cut the corner by taking the dirt road to Yalgoo. Along the way we stopped briefly at Walga Rock, apparently the second largest rock monolith in Australia. It is home to a large collection of aboriginal paintings, but we didn't have time to stay and explore as there was a meteorite crater down the road!

INCOMING!!!! Astronomers acting silly at Dalgaranga meteorite crater
INCOMING!!!! Astronomers acting silly at Dalgaranga meteorite crater CREDIT: John Goldsmith
Dalgaranga crater is the smallest authenticated crater in Australia and is either 21-m or 25-m in diameter, depending on which sign you read. It was discovered in 1920 by an aboriginal stockman named Billy Seward who almost rode straight into it during a muster on Dalgaranga station. It's a few kilometres from the main dirt road, but it well signposted by the Shire of Yalgoo. We had lunch there, John made a couple of full-dome panoramas with his camera, and we staged a very silly group photograph. Miles and miles from anywhere, it was so quiet. The sky was very menacing and we could see rain towards the coast - in outback WA you can see the weather coming from a long way off. There were some impressive lightening strikes and, with nothing to absorb the sound, the thunder echoed around the landscape for quite some time.

When you're used to driving in the UK, 2300km is a rather long way, but when you've got such an impressive landscape around you, an mp3 player, good company and a ready supply of jelly snakes, it positively flies past. Talking to the kids out there is always fun, and watching them get their first look at Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope is just fantastic. I'm becoming more and more aware of the realities of life out there, but may be, just may be, all this will have a positive effect on some of those kids.

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 10th Nov 2009 (11:31 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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