Remember when sky fell?

July 07, 2017

Rug up, then tune up your telescope early for a nice view of the full moon on Sunday night.

Clear crisp winter nights are often the best for star gazing in Australia but it gets very cold, so don’t forget to rug up before doing any extended star watching.

Winter sees our night skies dominated by the Southern Cross, sprawling Scorpio and Sagittarius, so it’s well worth stepping out into the chill for an astronomical thrill.

So, it’s just you, me and the starry night.

Depending on your age and your eyesight, you can see up to about 1500 to 2000 stars on a clear night from your backyard.

Ready? Then let’s go! There’s a nice full moon on Sunday night joined by the two bright planets Saturn and Venus, so go for it.

It’s a good opportunity to take a photograph too.

There’s something magical about those pictures of the moonlight sky and dazzling stars, they have a special something daytime photos can’t offer.

Place your camera on a sturdy tripod, turn off the auto focus mechanism and point the camera at the moon. Click, and keep the shutter open for a up to a half second or so.

NEVER use a flash!

Take several shots at different speeds and see which gives the best exposure. For stars, set the shutter speed to a range of settings between about two and 30 seconds. Anything longer and the stars will have tails on them.

Looking at the moon is a sneaky way to look back in time too. Most of the craters are ancient, many having formed more than three billion years ago by impacting meteors.

Got a smart phone? You can hand hold it over the eyepiece and careful aiming might get you a few nice moon shots. Email them to yourself. Now, go and look at the images on your computer and pick out the best one. Nothing beats trial and error. It’s the best way to build up experience and collect a good number of moon ‘selfies’.

Hey, this week is the 38th anniversary of Skylab coming down over Western Australia. Do you remember where you were when it hit in the early hours of July 12, 1979?

Skylab crashed over our south-east coast, and multicolour fireballs lit up the midnight sky scattering debris across the Nullarbor and the eastern goldfields and causing a worldwide sensation.

Pieces landed around Esperance where you can see debris from the space station at its municipal museum today. NASA officials quickly arrived in Esperance to check out the wreckage.

Every local that brought a piece of Skylab to the shire offices to be verified was given a plaque.

But it was a US newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, which turned the hunt for souvenirs into a frenzy when it offered US$10000 to the first person to arrive at its office with an authentic piece of Skylab.

The contest winner had just 72 hours to get to America, and he did. The prize was claimed by Stan Thornton, 17, from Esperance who became the hottest news of the day.

A Hong Kong currency dealer said he would pay an ounce of gold for each ounce of Skylab.

The Skylab crash put Esperance on the map. By morning, hundreds of scavengers were scrambling towards the tiny town of Balladonia in four-wheel drive vehicles and light planes.

But it didn’t stop the shire council having a light-hearted dig at NASA for scattering space junk over the town, sending them a $400 fine for littering, which they never paid.

It was a radio DJ in California who raised the money and mailed a cheque.

Many Australian prospectors who uncovered Skylab artefacts never reported the finds to authorities for fear of losing their booty.

I wonder if you were one of those and have a little Skylab souvenir sitting on your mantelpiece right now?

David Reneke is a feature writer for Australasian Science magazine and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Get David’s free astronomy newsletter at www.davidreneke.com

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