FAR from the glow of Perth’s metropolitan area, workers have started on the next phase of the world’s largest radio telescope in the Murchison, a global project that a local astronomer hopes will help fuel interest in the universe and lead to WA being the stargazing capital of Australia.
Astrotourism WA founder Carol Redford said WA’s light pollution was concentrated into a very small area around the metro area, making the rest of the state the ideal location for exploring the heavens.
Astrotourism’s strategic plan outlines a “pathway to increase overnight stays in regional WA, grow an economy around Astrotourism and take action to preserve the awe-inspiring sight of WA’s world-class dark night sky for decades to come”.
Due to the inaccessibility of the SKA for regular tourists and patrons, Ms Redford said regional towns had to work together to create stargazing trails, mentor tourism operators and work to protect the outback skies from light pollution.
“Astrotourism is any activity that a visitor can take part in that involves the night sky, whether it be going to an observatory to look through telescopes or by participating in an astro-photography workshop,” she said.
“From an Astrotourism perspective, that’s more focused on visitors and people partaking in activities that involve the night sky because the SKA is a place we’ll never ever be able to go.”
Ms Redford said WA had a prime opportunity to become the “stargazing capital of the world” when the Ningaloo coastline would host some of the best views of a rare hybrid solar eclipse in April 2023.
“This event will attract tens of thousands of extra visitors to WA and will bring along with it worldwide media attention,” she said.
Meanwhile back in Perth’s ‘burbs, local sidewalk astronomer Hubert Grady provides a surreal, otherworldly experience with his telescope at Fishing Boat Harbour in Fremantle.
Whenever there’s something interesting up in the skies at night, Mr Grady sets up his Dobsonian telescope, dons his galactically colourful shirt, and treats tourists and locals heading down for fish and chips with an impromptu lecture.
“Well, I used to enjoy the telescope tours up at the Observatory, like the public outreach part,” he says.
“I came across it a few years ago, a thing about how sidewalk astronomy started in America and there was a bloke called John Dobson who started doing it.”
Sidewalk astronomy dates back 50 years, with various amateur astronomical groups emerging, such as the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers founded by Dobson who revolutionised the world of astronomy by making it more accessible to the people on the street.
Despite the opportunity to exploit WA’s dark skies and SKA telescope, the former Barnett government went on a sacking spree amongst astronomers at the Perth Observatory in 2015.
Former Observatory volunteer Mark Davies said while the government’s lack of support stung at the time, the shift towards volunteering proved to have advantages.
“As far as the community is concerned, it was actually a positive thing because the WA government and the Department of Parks and Wildlife offered to hand over the keys quite literally for the running of the Observatory to the core group of volunteers who already ran the day and night tours,” he says.
“That actually allowed them to get the money which was being received from the tours and turn around and reinvest it into improving the equipment within the Observatory.”
In November 2018 science minister Dave Kelly presented the Observatory volunteers with a $958,890 cheque from Lotterywest.
The grant was provided by the state government to “ensure [that] for many more years the Observatory can continue to inspire the public and young minds”.
The funding also helped create an Aboriginal Astronomy Centre outlining the Noongar people’s connection to the night sky.
The Square Kilometre Array project is an “international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope with eventually over a square kilometre (one million square metres) of collecting area”, the project’s website says.
The Karoo Region in South Africa and the Murchison will co-host the project mainly due to being remote and “radio quiet”.
Essentially, the SKA works by using “thousands of dishes and up to a million low-frequency antennas that will enable astronomers to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail and survey the entire sky much faster than any system currently in existence”.
The Morrison government has invested $387 million towards the SKA project in the hope it will not only help astronomers learn more about the universe but also create more than 350 jobs during the 10-year construction and another 230 ongoing positions during the 50-year life of the project.