Tag Archives: Astronomy

Magpie, raising sky

“According to the Mandalbingu people, a long time ago the sky was very close to the Earth and it was dark. Everyone had to crawl about the earth in darkness. The intelligent magpies decided that if they worked together they could raise the sky upwards to create more room for all. They did this by lifting the sky upwards by using long sticks. As they pushed the sky even higher it suddenly split open to usher in the first sunrise The blanket of darkness broke up into fragments and drifted away as clouds. The magpies burst into song and from that time onwards they have greeted the sunrise with their warbling song.”

(Ragbir Bhathal, Aboriginal Astronomy)

This story has not strayed far from my thoughts for days.

Since reading the Mandalbingu story,  I have been thinking back to farm life and the magpies I observed doing something that seemed pretty remarkable to me. For years up there on the hill, I observed a group of magpies regularly gathering on my lawn, arranged in a circle staring at each other for a long time, with the occasional warble.

It was a thrilling thing to watch because, in no other way can you describe it as some sort of intentional mapgie conference.

A collaboration?

A conversation amongst elders?

Swapping songs? Sharing?

Or, as I now understand it,  raising the sky:

Moon gazing and the spaces between

An evening late for the super moon (being a mother does not pause for a super moon), I wrestled the telescope out under a clear Spring night sky and managed a few shots and some video with my DSLR mounted to the telescope. I am too aware that I could muck about with stacking to improve these, and I did start, but then reality of having finite time and requiring actual sleep before a day at work (she notes, meanwhile typing a blog post after midnight) took hold, so my RAW images were processed on wait for it….my little dinky chromebook.

I do really favour staying low tech with astronomy though. My favourite image of saturns rings were taken on my iphone  held up the telescope eye piece many many years ago. I have a 10 year old 90mm refractor telescope, on an equitorial mount with no fancy goto or tracking. The thumb screw is missing from my eye piece because I dropped in in the dark. I am always tripping over the tripod legs in the dark.  I have light pollution in my yard from neighbouring houses and street lights. Astronomy and astrophotography doesn’t always need to be a perfect science.

It’s about connecting with that vast beautiful amazing expanse of worlds up there. We generally, I think, take it for granted. When people talk about mindfullness and mental health, being centred or connected,  there is rarely mention about getting outside for a look at the night sky and getting to know it. It’s a humbling and profound place though, looking up in the dark.

So, in all my imperfection, and clumsy technique, I still see the moon’s perfection captured in my photographs:



aboriginal night skies
Bhathal, Ragbir. (2010). Aboriginal astronomy. Sydney : ARI

I also want to mention quickly, about the incredible learning adventures I am having by reading Aboriginal Astronomy by Dr Ragbir Bhathal (2010) which I borrowed through my local library.  I found it via a subject search for aboriginal astronomy as although I had found a fantastic list of further reading here on an Aboriginal Astronomy website, many of these weren’t a bit tricky to find easily in my speedy searches.

It’s a simply bound document publication,  which belies the astounding reading inside.  A mind-opening insight into sociocultural/ethnoastronomy and it’s not often you gain a whole new world of insight in just the first few pages of something.  I’m in awe of the deep connection of the cosmos expressed in examples of indigenous scientific understanding of the night sky and the expression of this understanding through stories, songs and art.

When I look at aboriginal art I’ve had for years right next to my desk, I really thought I appreciated their complexity. But, I now see something even more, and much different, something else,  after only a few pages reading this book. Not only is this shift in understanding, something I can see in indigenous artwork, but when I look up into that great canvas of the night sky – my imagination is unlocked somehow.  It’s a small insight into how to to try to unsee the known and familiar patterns, and to instead, see the sky through wizened ancient eyes. It’s galaxies of art, science, and history colliding with energy.

We can never truly see the full story though, which is sacred and rightfully respected and shared in a way that deep and cultural learning should be.  Just a glimpse though, is enough to give you a sense of how unique and special indigenous australian relationship was with the night sky.

You can get a taste of the publication, in this shorter document available online  Astronomy of the First People of Australia by Ragbir Bhathal, but I encourage you to seek this out.

For now, I will just continue to wonder and dwell on the realisation that it really is all about the spaces in between.

emu in the sky
Corona Australis, the Southern Crown constellation is clearly visible in this photograph I took last week. But now I begin to see something else even more beautiful…

How (and why) to make a D.I.Y. budget space dome from a beach tent

“Rather than pushing children to think like adults, we might do better to remember that they are great learners and to try harder to be more like them.”
Seymour Papert

When I look up into the night sky, the wonder of it hits me every time. We are seeing a memory of the universe. An echo into time that has past, and yet, it’s now in this moment.

Last week, at age 64, after losing herself to Alzheimers disease, my step-mother passed away. She looked tiny and almost childlike in death. If there is one thing that this disease teaches you  (especially when you witness it multiple times) it’s that our concept of  ageing, time and memory is just a story we tell ourselves.

I thought about my three year old, caught up in the midst of a family funeral in the school holidays, the day before his 4th birthday.  He was oblivious to what was going on, despite explanations. There was no ending for him.

Time moves in mysterious ways for a 4 years old

It struck me that right now, his capacity for enduring memories is just unfurling.  A powerful and amazing transaction is taking place in his brain, giving him a sense of past and future time, just as his nannas sense of time and space was unravelling.  He tries to express time, and it’s amusing, “last week, when I was a baby”, “I’ve been waiting for years for a drink”. At 4, the foundations of long term memory are laid, memories and making impressions which might endure for life.

So the day before his scrambled last minute small birthday gathering, yesterday’s funeral still swimming in my mind, a spark of an idea formed.   In future years I doubt he will remember his presents. All he really needed was something to remember. Something to imagine. A journey. Something to lead his mind forward into the future.
He loves space, so I simply wanted to take him there and to let him take a few friends along for the ride…so we made a last minute…

 space dome.jpg-large

How to make a space dome from a beach tent!

imageWe made a space dome in the dark of the garage, and it was for kids and grown ups.

You need:

  • a space, like a garage or room you can darken
  • a beach tent or any kind of  small dome tent (to go inside)
  • blankets and ropes to hang them from
  • a screen (laptop or ipad), wifi connection and speakers
  • cardboard and aluminium foil, fairy lights (all optional

Opening the garage door, following the dark tunnel to a disguised beach tent covered in thick blankets, you crawled into a dark tent,  to see a laptop playing a youtube clip of Hubble Space telescope images set to ambient music.

But in that moment, if you allowed it, it was ‘The Meteor’ –  a space shuttle – and you were at the helm and you were flying through the wonder of space.



Here is the journey that ‘The Meteor’ took via a beautiful collection of images set to  beautiful music by David Schombert. :



With his 7 year old sister, a hasty control panel had been made for ‘The Meteor’ with all the important buttons (hyperspace, reverse thrust etc..). My husband added the blanket tunnel which really made the whole space dome experience feel boarding a craft for an epic journey.

My daughter appeared dressed as an astronaut mid-way through the small party of kids and grown ups, distributing tickets.


My favourite thing was watching the faces of four year old and grown ups as they entered the garage. Curiosity and wonder. Illuminated only by a dim spinning disco ball and seeing kids and adults alike smiling with amused, wonderous glistening eyes as they entered the unexpected journey to the stars. Huddled in the dark together, flying through space, simple wonder is easily conjured in us all.

I wonder if the space dome would have existed if not for the sadness of death this week. What comforts me is that, is that even death, always measured voluminously by tears, we can also perhaps think to measure its capacity to grow something. To make us cherish moments, memory and childlike wonder.



A view from inside ‘The Meteor’


At the control panel

If you are inspired to make your own space dome simulator, using simple materials that you already have, I would love to see what you have done so that The Meteor 2.0 can be improved in future years!

One small step for astrophotography

I recently unpacked my telescope for the recent lunar eclipse:






and had been to a planetarium movie with my daughter. That was me enchanted again.

Having had a few interesting attempts at astrophotography back in 2005 with a point and shoot camera and my telescope, for a bit of quick self- inspiration, I managed to get a fuzzy rings of Saturn on my mobile phone camera through my 90mm Sky Watcher scope.













It’s not fantastic quality, but this is another world, a ringed planet, the most beautiful and amazing of icon of the vastness of our universe, via a phone camera. It’s sort of cool. This has now inspired me to to go a bit further and hook up my DSLR with my scope, and use a laptop to control some of the exposure and press the shutter remotely, to avoid wobbling the telescope.





I already had the telescope and camera, and just needed a relatively cheap ($AUS 30) t-ring which connects the camera, and I new Barlow lens which had a removable magnification piece ($70).

You then attach the t-ring and the Barlow lens to the camera (make sure you remove all the  covers first – I had a bit of a dumb moment) and then attach the camera into the telescope eyepiece. I then dusted off my archived IBM T20 Thinkpad (I knew I had been keeping this for a special occassion). I also downloaded the Canon EOS Utility software, because my CD was long lost, hooked up a cable and this gives you the functionality to take photographs and change exposure from your laptop.


What spacey photographs to try first

The most straightforward guide that I have found is Phil’s Astronomy Blog and his simple Tips and Tricks for Astrophotography.  I’m basically going to try capturing exactly what he suggests :

1) stellar dust, star clusters and smaller nebulas in the Milky Way

2) some star trails

Both of these approaches teach you something about exposure for the night sky and a little go at stacking multiple images, which is pretty key to some of the really cool star trail photos you see around.

Now I just need a clear night and some time!