Exploring the Heavens – Week 1

On Tuesday 3 May I attended the first week of my new course on astronomy at Sydney Observatory. The course is titled ‘Exploring the Heavens’ and is led by Dr Paul Payne. The structure of the course is as follows:

  1. History of Astronomy
  2. Celestial rhythms
  3. The solar system
  4. The stars
  5. Telescopes

So the course started with Dr Payne’s two hour version of the history of astronomy in the Sydney Observatory 3D theatre. Some of the main figures covered included:

  • Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)
  • Claudius Ptolemy (~140 BC)
  • Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543)
  • Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601)
  • Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630)
  • Giordano Bruno (1547 – 1600)
  • Galileo Galilee (1564 – 1642)
  • Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727)
  • Edmund Halley (1656 – 1742)
  • Charles Messier (1730 – 1817)
  • William Herschel (1738 – 1822)
  • James Bradley (1693 – 1762)
  • Friedrich Bessel (1784 – 1846)
  • John Adams (1819 – 1892)
  • Jean Le Verrier (1811 – 1877)
  • Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

Dr Payne kept the pace moving pretty quickly to cover all of these historical and important figures and more about the ancient Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Renaissance as well as advancements in mathematics, engineering and technology.

Dr Payne also used his homemade 3D graphics to help demonstrate certain themes and concepts, including retrograde motion of planets, constellations and the movement of the moon and planets from Earth’s point of view. The graphics were great and they certainly enhanced the presentation putting us firmly in the cosmic realms.

I was surprised at how important astrology was in ancient times and how seriously it was taken to predict future events. People were also very superstitous and heavenly objects played an important role in how people lived their lives, including Roman emperors. It is also amazing at how much people knew about the solar system hundreds and thousands of years ago without even the aid of a telescope.

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As well as learning about the history of astronomy Dr Payne gave us a tour of the night sky on what was a beautiful and clear evening in Sydney. Some of the notable objects we spotted were: Mars, Jupiter, Alpha Centauri, Sirius, Betelgeuse, as well as some notable constellations.

Jupiter-planet

The final part of the evening involved us moving to the south dome of the observatory to use the telescope to view the night sky. We were lucky enough that the sky was clear from clouds and we were treated to an amazing view of Jupiter and the Galilean moons Ganymede, Io, Europa and Callisto.

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Image of the telescope in the south dome of Sydney Observatory.

This telescope is the oldest working one in Australia and was built in 1874 by Hugo Schroder in Hamburg, Germany. An interesting article about the telescope can be found here.

This was actually my first time looking through a telescope and the view did not disappoint. I was amazed by how clear Jupiter appeared, being able to clearly identify its white zonesĀ and brown belts, both of which are cloud systems with winds that blow in opposite directions. The Galilean moons, although tiny, were very bright and also so clear to see. This is exactly what I had been hoping to see and has just added more fuel to my growing love for astronomy.

Looking forward to week 2!