STAR GAZING

WHY THE OUTBACK SKY IS STILL THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

The modern world can be a drag sometimes, but all one needs to be free – even if just to shake off the stress for a day or two – is to sleep beneath the stars.

The Japanese invented this era of high-tech city living, are also the best at knowing when to switch off from it. They don’t have a lot of green space but they use it to unplug. It’s the cornerstone of their preventative medicine, and it’s known as Shirin Yoku or ‘forest bathing’.  It involves sleeping under the stars, because the open sky will focus your mind on something else and allow your brain and body some temporary peace.

With this in mind, let’s check out this list of forest bathing nigthtsky highlights that we can all get involved with when we’re camped out in remote Australia…

SHOOTING STARS

Well, not really, they’re meteorites.

Against a sea of black, you’ll see them launch, catch your eye for a second, usually in a blaze of green or purple, and then disappear spectacularly.

Ahh, meteors, not only a model of grandma-shopping-car made by Ford in the 1980s, but also shooting stars.

What we are witnessing in these situations is not the end of the billion-year life of some distant sun, but rather bits of rock hurtling through space.

And where did these flaming rocks come from? They’re mostly debris that’s broken free from bigger rocks (asteroids) and from comets. They usually travel in clusters, which can look like showers from the ground, and, when they come in contact with our atmosphere, they flame up and fizzle out

The Australian bush has long had a rep for being the peak place in the world for catching these shows. Especially in the tropics, because the closer you get to the equator the more brilliantly shooting stars become visible, especially if you’re facing to the north between midnight and dusk.

The two major showers that bring stargazers out of the woodwork, and lying down in open spaces, are the Orionids in mid October, and the more prolific Geminids, which appear two months later during summer school holidays.

STARS

The Original GPS.

Before Hema was a thing, old time explorers driving ships or camel trains, navigated through oceans and deserts by using stars as their anchored reference points.

It’s a basic skill no longer needed these days, but its simplicity puts everything into perspective.

Yep, we’re on a rock spinning around one star, and we can rely on all those other stars to follow certain paths throughout certain seasons.

Early Aussie explorers knew that the night sky moved each month, in a consistent fashion that could be relied upon.

They recognised that stars rose four minutes earlier than the previous day. Which mightn’t sound like that much, but over a month, it will change by two hours.

What this means for us, is that we can catch a completely different show every time we take off out to the tracks. The most noticeable differences are during summer when we look squarely into the ‘Saucepan’ (Orion), while in winter we get a eyeful of the ‘Scorpion Tail’ (Scorpius).

GALAXIES & CLOUDS

Why are some parts of the sky darker than others?

Take a look at a decent night sky photo from the Red Centre of Oz, a place with nil light pollution, and you will notice a big black scar torn across the middle of the Milky Way.

It’s known as the Great Rift, and it’s a prime example of Dark Space. The reason this patch of the sky is blacker, and seems to have less stars, is due to blankets of dust that were kicked up when other stars exploded.

It’s all about light perspective, the stars are still there, behind the space dust, but our view of them is drowned out by groups of stars that are closer to us.

Nowhere in the world gets a better view of the Milky Way than the Aussie outback. Which is why all the boldest clouds of stars are the ones from our own galaxy.

Our unique Southern Hemisphere vantage also allows us a decent view of our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda; and also the dwarf Megallanic galaxies, which appear as two radiating clouds.

Fittingly, for us, the Yolngu of Arnhem Land refer to the two clouds as a man and wife sitting beside a campfire.

SATELLITES

Manmade bottle rockets.

Satellite spotting has always been seen as a poor cousin, given that they have a much less interesting backstory than a meteorite.

However, there are 3000 of them, they’re easy to trace, even from the suburbs, and they can sometimes throw out the best show in the solar system.

The big ticket item, for all of us who camp out, is the big old International Space Station, as it metronomically beats its endless circumnavigation of our planet. It’s wider than a football field and is often the brightest thing buzzing around up there.

The most dazzling satellites that will tickle your retinas with colour are the 100 or so irridium jobs spinning around for the telcos. Because they have six sides, they can reflect the sunlight from the other side of the earth in bright flashes known as Irridum Flares.

There are 35,000 synthetic objects orbiting the earth, and the majority of these satellites are classified as space junk, no longer in use. They just keep spinning in the Earth’s orbit for no good reason apart from to give us something to look at each night.

You’d think with there being that many of them that your whole field of vision would be clogged up, but most of them are too small, and you actually have to really go looking for those bigger ones most of the time.

And most of the time, that time is an hour either side of sunrise or sundown, as this is when they can reflect the nearby sunlight from around the curve of the planet, and cut a streak through the sky.

Before long you’ll be seeking out the path of specific synthetic shooting stars, the Chinese Space Station, the Hubble Telescope, the Russian Mir, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

THE MOON

Our nocturnal mirror.

Whether we like it or not, this old chunk of cheese is bound to our planet by the invisible anchor of gravity.

If Earth were ever to have a photo taken by some celestial portrait photographer, the resulting image would have that dirty rock hanging around like a grey mole on the Earth’s beautiful face, or a dusty old golf ball trying to befriend a new basketball pumped full of air.

While the moon would definitely look unglamorous from outer space, for us terrestrial humans, it’s aglowing white muse, and nothing has inspired as much romantic art.

Why? Because it’s the only thing that really looks back at us when we stare at the sky each night. We’re inseparable.

It’ll change your plans: just try making the barge to the mainland on time, during a king tide on Fraser Island.

It’ll also change your campside sleep patterns: the glow of the full moon messes with your circadian rhythms, even with eyes shut and your tent zipped up.

But what are we actually looking at, apart from ourselves?

The important thing to note here is that the dark parts are the plains, and the lighter parts are the mountains. The darker parts are also referred to as seas, such as Sea of Tranquility, and there are 23 of these.

The most noticeable aspect of a full moon is when you see what looks like a single spot with stretch lines coming off it – it kinda looks like the pivot point of a spinning top. This is called Tycho, and this is a crater caused by a single asteroid.