On a visit to Australia last summer I took the opportunity to look up Rudi Vavra, who contacted me on the Internet a couple of years ago in order to look for my opinion on Televue telescopes. We have been in contact for a couple of years now and there has been a standing invitation to visit each others country for that time. An enthusiastic astronomer, Rudi has so far resisted the opportunity to examine the cloud base in Ireland at high magnification, but I was delighted to accept an invitation to join himself and some other members of the Wollongong Amateur Astronomy Club to join them for an observing night.

Wollongong at night

Wollongong is an attractive coastal town 80km south of Sydney, offering sunshine and good surf on some fabulous beaches including the nearby "picture-postcard" 7 mile beach. A combination of perfect weather and the stunning southern skies transform the countryside surrounding the town into an astronomical playground as the sun sets on yet another cloudless day.

I couldn't believe it when Saturday dawned and the weather was cloudy and stormy looking. However, it started to clear in the afternoon and as we set off Rudi assured me that all would be well with the weather. To be honest, I put his assurances down to the irrepressible Aussie optimism which only a nation that lives under several hundred days of sunshine per year can have!! However, he was right, the further we drove the better it became. On our way, we bought a hot dinner of roast chicken and vegetables as we drove to the Cataract Scout Camp north of the city, arriving just as darkness fell. We ate in style as the stars appeared. Rudi even had hot water for fresh coffee. Deluxe observing indeed!! I was glad of the hot dinner later in the evening as it did get quite cold.

The site really was fabulous, the Milky way was very impressive and both the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds were clearly visible. All around me, various telescopes were being set up including Rudi's N102, a 10-inch LX200, a 6-inch achromat on an equatorial, a Meade ETX90EC, a highly modified 10-inch Meade Dobsonian and a homemade 6-inch Dobsonian. Also present was an Orion 80mm ShortTube refractor and 20X80 and 7X50 binoculars.

This really was shaping up to be a night to remember, an opportunity to compare a number of different scopes as well as a look at the wonders of the Southern sky.

A couple of the members complained to me about encroaching light pollution from a nearby mine, but compared to the conditions that I have lived with all my life in Ireland and England, it was superb.

A huge, bollowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae. Photo: Jon Morse University of Colorado) and NASA

Rudi was very keen that I take a look through his Tele-Vue TV102 in order to compare it to my TV101. He decided to show me the area around Eta Carina as an introduction to the southern deep sky. After Rudi pointed the scope I had a look and was hit by the most visually stunning astronomical image I have ever seen through any telescope. This incredible star field has it all, nebulosity, dark lanes, clusters and nestling in the centre, an exploding star. Delicate swathes of nebulosity envelop yellow Eta Carina, with the famous lobes visible at around 100X. One lobe from the star is distinctly brighter than the other. It is hard to compare it to any Northern Hemisphere object but I can say that it is even more impressive than the Orion nebula, high praise indeed.!! Unfortunately for Rudi, I had never seen anything as spectacular in the Northern hemisphere so it was very difficult to judge his telescope.

As the night wore on I did have a chance to properly assess the TV102. It is a superb performer, stars are sharp to the edge of the field with excellent contrast. Although I haven't had the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison, I can't imagine there being any difference between it and my TV101.

Next up was Omega Centauri, well resolved in both the TV102 and the 6-inch achromat. This thing is enormous, much bigger than M13. It is also curiously uniform in brightness across the object. There appears to be no obvious condensation towards the centre, unlike say M92.

47 Tucanae, the second largest and second brightest globular cluster in the sky.

47 Tucanae was another fantastic globular, another of Rudi's favourites. It appeared to have a uniform disc of stars in the centre of the globular, again a feature I haven't seen before in a globular.

The Tarantula nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud was another breathtaking sight, again without parallel in the Northern sky. The 'legs' of the 'spider' were incredibly clear.

A lot of spectacular objects visible in Ireland are quite far south and therefore low in the sky. An advantage of being in the Southern hemisphere is that these objects ride high in the sky allowing far more detail to be seen. So an exploration of Sagittarius and Scorpio was next on my list. The Lagoon and Triffid nebula were 'photo-like' in quality from the site. Although naturally devoid of colour and a bit dimmer than an overexposed astrophotograph, all the detail was there, even through a 4-inch. The dust lanes in both nebulae jumped out at you and the shape was exactly as you'd expect from the photos I've seen on the back pages of Sky and Telescope. I spent a while exploring open clusters in the sky, particularly in the area around Eta Carina which has an embarrassment of riches in this, and so may other, respects. Indeed, this was the object I came back to most, I must have looked at it through every telescope and eyepiece present that night.

Composite colour image of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud amd its surroundings

Everyone there was incredibly generous with their time and equipment, almost vying to offer me looks at various southern showpieces. They really were a great bunch of people. Rudi already has an 'appreciation' of the less than favourable observing conditions in Ireland and indeed Northern Europe in general. I thought that the rest of the club would take their good fortune to be living in Australia while pursuing their hobby for granted. However, they all seemed to be very aware of conditions overseas and literally 'counted their lucky stars' they were in Wollongong. Australian amateurs have an amazing number of advantages over their northern hemisphere counterparts and I think it may be worth listing them here.

1. The country has a low population density and therefore very little light pollution, particularly away from the coast where most people live 2. Many of the most spectacular objects in the sky are in the southern sky. 3. The planets in general are higher up at opposition. 4. The weather is excellent, and (most of the time) the skies are clear.

In fact the only disadvantage at present is that it is expensive to import a telescope. Once you get one however, I can't think of anywhere better to be an astronomer.

Dave Finlay started doing some astrophotography, including a wide angle shot of the Southern Milky Way with a 35mm camera piggyback on his LX200. He painted us all with light from his red torch which should produce a spectacular photo.

It did cloud over for around an hour and we sat around chatting. This was a chance to allow my hosts to indulge in what I learned is a favourite pastime of Aussies that is scaring the living daylights out of soft Europeans with tales of their yicious/toxic wildlife. Paul Lovasz, the owner of the 6 inch refractor, had the best story about box jellyfish which come ashore in Queensland in large numbers at certain times of the year. He said that people who have been stung by these creatures often suffer damaged vocal chords. I was very surprised by this and asked if the toxin preferentially attacked the vocal chords. This produced the deadpan response, 'No mate, it's the screaming!!!!'. I was in Cairns for a fortnight later on my trip but I have to say that despite the jellyfish season being long over, I didn't enjoy my swimming at all. The words Coral Reef and violent death are now inextricably linked in my mind!! Interestingly, I did tell a few Aussies that story and even they were impressed!!! It is also my favourite pub story here in Ireland, if tourism numbers to Oz are down next year, blame me!!

Box jellyfish are lethal - they occur widley from Queensland, Australia northward to Malaysia. They are dangerously venomous; even a moderate sting can cause death within a few minutes. 30% mortality rate with deaths from respiratory paralaysis, drowning due to neuromuscular paralysis, and cardiovascular collapse. Nasty!

Another pleasure of the evening was to view all the various telescopes. Particularly impressive was Laurie Marshall's fully loaded Meade 10-inch Dob which offers the last word in observational convenience thanks to a large number of ingenious DIY enhancements. These include an electric focuser, dew heaters made from electric blanket wire and a built in heated cabinet to keep eyepieces free of dew. A low battery indicator and Digital Setting Circles complete the very impressive set-up.

I also had a close look at Brian Tyne's ETX. This scope has a very impressive GOTO computer, offering almost a page of information on some objects and nice sharp optics. The field of view is a little narrow, inevitable with a Maksutov design. Another great scope to keep handy in your car, I can now see why it's been such a huge success. Another telescope I had a close look at was Paul Lovasz's 6-inch Chinese achromat. The price of a 6-inch refractor has plunged in the last few years thanks to the entry of the Chinese to this market. These 6-inch refractors can now be bought for around €1000 complete with an equatorial mount. This scope was a great performer on low power. Stars were pinsharp and the contrast was far superior to that offered by a reflector. Also the chromatic aberration is not obtrusive on these objects. The moon is also excellent through this telescope. Where it really falls down though is on the planets. You do get a serious amount of purple around these bright objects. Paul, the owner told me that an accessory now available called a Chromacorr cures this colour problem and offers near APO performance but it isn't cheap.

Interestingly, Paul also owns a similar 4 inch Chinese refractor from the same maker as his 6 inch so he has obviously been taken with these scopes. An enlightened refractor buff like myself!!!!!, he also had a fast Orion ShortTube 80mm refractor on a photo tripod. This was an excellent little widefield scope and incredibly convenient. You can easily lift the tube and tripod in one hand and I'm sure you could stow both in the glove compartment of a car, an ideal 'grab and go' combination. If I ever see one of these scopes second-hand I'll jump on it.

The evening ended at 4am with a simple, yet uniquely Australian, experience, watching the Moon rise behind the branches of a gum tree, a fitting end to a night I'll never forget. As I write this piece the sky is cloudy to the horizon, I've been home 2 weeks and have had one clear(ish) night. What more can I say? Point your browser now to http://www.qantas.com.au You won't regret it!!

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