Stargazing in Cape York

Camping out under the stars is a great way to spend your time while in Cape York.

Camping out under the stars is a great way to spend your time while in Cape York.

By Russell Window

How many times have you been sitting around a campfire with a few friends when the conversation has turned to the stars, the universe or dare I say it something more adventurous?
One of the joys of camping for me now, thanks to Russell, is to grab a comfy chair and to turn my head towards to sky and get ready for one of natures best shows. Stargazing makes for a great conversation piece too and can even become a bit of a competition between those competitive people, so why not read on and then get ready to put theory into practice once nature turns those lights out once again.
Astronomy:
Those of you from the southern states will be amazed at how short the twilight is in the north, we have 15 to 20 minutes from the setting of the sun until the sky is almost completely dark. With very little inhabitants on the Cape the sky has very little light pollution and provides excellent viewing for amateur astronomers. Another advantage of the cape is because we are very close to the Equator, we can see a lot of the northern stars which are hidden by the Earth from the southern states.

Satellites:
If you have never seen a satellite pass over your head then you are in for a special treat while visiting Cape York. Astronomy is typically about looking for natural objects and phenomena with large and often expensive telescopes, but there are now a host of interesting objects orbiting Earth that anyone can spot, from the space shuttle to the International Space Station to satellites that can briefly outshine the brightest stars.
Satellites are visible because they reflect sunlight. A satellite entering the Earth’s shadow immediately vanishes from view, for that reason there’s only certain times when they are easily viewed. The best time to see satellites on the cape is just after twilight, roughly 30 to 90 minutes after sunset, or 30 to 90 minutes before sunrise.

The International Space Station and the space shuttles are by far the brightest satellites. Orbiting the Earth at an average altitude of approximately 400km, they can appear to move as fast as a high-flying airliner, sometimes taking just three to four minutes to cross the sky. They can easily be confused with aircraft lights, though at their brightest they sometimes appear to rival Jupiter for brilliance

With a little scanning during twilight, you should not have to wait more than 15 minutes before you see one of the nearly 10,000 satellites now in orbit around Earth. While most are too faint to be seen with the unaided eye, a few hundred are large enough and low enough above Earth to be easily seen without the aid of telescopes or binoculars. They are much easier to spot than you might think, find a nice spot with a good view of the sky, turn off all your lights in the camp site, sit back and look for a “star” which is moving across the sky. Some of the satellites travel quite quickly and they can come from all directions, but always in a straight line. If you want to increase your chances of seeing more satellites, pick an evening with no moon and spend most of your time looking towards the east, the satellites you spot are generally brighter than any you will see in the western sky.

It is easy to be thrown into a spin when first trying to work out whether you are looking at an asteroid, shooting star, or merely the regular Qantas flight passing overhead.

It is easy to be thrown into a spin when first trying to work out whether you are looking at an asteroid, shooting star, or merely the regular Qantas flight passing overhead.

In the past several years, a new fleet of satellites has been put into Earth orbit that can flare to incredible brilliance. The Iridium communication satellites, whose silver-coated Teflon antenna arrays mimic near-perfect mirrors, can cause a dazzling glint of reflected sunlight from their orbits. The flares range in brightness from merely a bright star to, in the most extreme case, much brighter than any other object in the sky. In fact, it is even possible to see some flares during the daytime, if you know exactly where to look!
Meteor Showers: (Shooting Stars)
For all those who think a shooting star is a star that has just died you are about to be very disappointed, the majority of “shooting stars” are actually small pieces of rock averaging about the size of a pea to a marble. These small objects are travelling very fast, some travel over 1km every second, when they enter the atmosphere of the Earth, friction with the atmosphere generates a massive amount of heat and causes them to burn up.

We can see shooting stars all year round, although the best times are during a meteor shower, these occur when the Earth passes through the orbits of some of the many comets which orbit our sun. During some of the best meteor showers you are able to see 2 or 3 “shooting stars” every minute.

To conclude there are a lot more options for astronomy if you can afford a telescope or a good set of binoculars, but the best way is sitting around a small camp fire gazing into the universe and wondering what really is out there amongst all those stars.