Dharawal observatory a heavenly idea

MACARTHUR Astronomical Society wants to build an observatory, open to all local residents, in the new Dharawal National Park.



It would not be built on pristine bushland, the society is quick to point out, but rather the old North Cliff Colliery site in the centre of the park, near Wedderburn.

Society president Chris Malikoff said he was excited about the prospect of rehabilitating a "scorched earth" site and using it for scientific and educational purposes.

Because of the high elevation and light-free environment it would be a beautiful spot to do some stargazing, Mr Malikoff said.

The site is still under lease to BHP Billiton, pending restoration. But, if successful, the society would seek finance to erect two observatory domes and a cabin for members to meet, plan their observing and possibly get some sleep.

"Our footprint within the park would be barely detectable," he said.

Mr Malikoff was buoyed by the warm reception the idea received so far from local MPs, former mayor Anoulack Chanthivong, Aboriginals and environmentalists.

The society will outline its proposal in more detail to the local branch of the National Parks Association in a special meeting later this month.

Mr Malikoff said Macarthur Astronomical Society was one of the most active in the nation, but had no observatory of its own and no access to sites owned by others, such as UWS.

He said the proposed Dharawal facility would be used by society members for their own private observing, astro-imaging and research, and for free public outreach.

"We would seek to engage our community at every opportunity, and support upcoming local scientists in future generations."

Funding for construction would obviously be a big hurdle, but the society has ideas and is thankful for the theoretical support it has already received from local MPs Bryan Doyle and Jai Rowell.

Roger Powell of Leumeah, a founding member of the society, is enthusiastic.

"All current observing is carried out — with the member's own personal equipment — at two rented sites, one at The Oaks and the other in Belanglo State Forest," he said. "We have no possibility of developing either site as an observatory.

"Our site at The Oaks is progressively more difficult to observe from because of increased light pollution from the urban sprawl."

Dharawal is the perfect spot, he said, after a long search of likely sites.

"Whilst we are never going to find a perfectly light-pollution-free site within easy reach of Campbelltown, we considered that within this generally protected region [of Dharawal] we had the best opportunity for obtaining the use of a small plot and developing it as an observatory with minimum light pollution," Mr Powell said.

"We considered federally-owned Holsworthy inappropriate because of its proximity to Sydney and its potential for unexploded artillery shells; the Woronora region is poorly accessible from Campbelltown and the Cordeaux, Avon and Nepean areas are too far south."

He said involving the public in the campaign was an important factor.

"Throughout its existence, the society has sought to extend its activities into the public domain, by holding free public observing nights and private observing sessions for community groups.

"We do not charge the public who attend our public field nights, our Macarthur Astronomy Forum or our other activities — although we will accept donations."

Great relationship already established out west

LOCAL astronomers are inspired by the famous relationship that exists between Siding Springs Observatory, near Coonabarabran, and the adjoining Warrumbungle National Park.

Thousands of visitors keen on the observatory also visit the park — and vice versa.

It's a "mutualism" that the Macarthur Astronomical Society is keen to replicate, despite the fact the observatory proposed for Dharawal National Park would only be a tiny fraction the size of Siding Springs. "The domes we intend putting in would be comparable in size to those at the UWS Rotary Observatory," said society member Roger Powell.

Mr Powell said some of the private pursuits permitted in NSW national parks include ornithology, cycling, swimming, even rock climbing.

"Astronomy is also a healthy outdoor activity best pursued in remote locations," he said. "After lengthy examination, we have concluded that not only is Dharawal the best place for an observatory, it is almost certainly the only place."