The Southern Cross

Out at Pascoe Vale Girls College we have been meeting regularly, students have been teaching other students how to drive the telescope and we have thrown ourselves into Astrophotography.

Students aligning the telescope at Pascoe Vale Girls College

Students aligning the telescope at Pascoe Vale Girls College

Even the parents have been getting in on the act with Madooshi’s dad learning, then teaching us about Registax and how to stack images. Madooshi’s dad also told me how he made a telescope for Halley’s Comet in 1986 as a kid growing up in Sri Lanka out of old camera lenses, shipping rope and a car clutch. He saw the comet and continues his love for astronomy today with his own telescope in his backyard. We love that he is sharing his enthusiasm with us!

First some reports from a few students:

This one from Tenisha Fernando (Year 12) on the Rephract Science Club observing session;

It had been a while since my last viewing night with Year 12 taking great priority over many things and even though I had a SAC the next day, I was incredibly grateful to Miss Ankers for persuading me to come to the viewing night on the 30th of July! The sky was beautifully clear, giving us a chance to see so many different things. Since it had been a while, I was pretty rusty with setting it up the telescope but thanks to Gaby (Yr 8) and the teachers, we managed to get the telescope set up and quickly aligned using Arcturus and Rasalhague and quickly on our way to our first sight, which was the incredibly bright Venus! It looked absolutely amazing, but what was even better was Saturn which looked crystal-clear through the telescope! It looked so good that my sister (Saumaya Year 10) and I took pictures of it. I took a few with a mobile camera and it turned out well, but the best pictures came when we added a camera to the telescope to get some amazing photos of it. After taking a couple of shots we moved to a cluster of stars, the Wishing Well Cluster (C91) to be exact. It looked amazing and the pictures we got were absolutely stunning. After playing around with the light exposure and timer, we found the best pictures came out at an exposure of 800 with a time of either 5 seconds or 30 seconds.

Each of us took a turn then, Gaby centred on the Jewel Box Cluster (C94) and also the Running Chicken Nebula (C100) and we took some shots with the same settings.

Samantha (Yr 12) took us to Omega Centauri (C80) and we changed the settings to ISO 1600 and varied the exposure time between 5 and 15 seconds.
Overall the night was amazing with all the different things we got to see in the sky thanks to a beautifully clear sky and amazing memories to remember what we saw with the photos we took. Hopefully the rest of the term is filled with clear Tuesday nights so that we can see some more amazing things!

Since that night the students have been experimenting with their images. This one of Saturn by Tenisha using photoshop.

Tenisha's image of Saturn created by stacking single images in Photoshop

Tenisha’s image of Saturn created by stacking single images in Photoshop

The year 7’s have been getting involved in the program of late and on a relatively cloudy night, Gaby (experienced Year 8 student, who came along just after she had won the overall competition for the St Johns Ambulance Event that day) took over and instructed them on how to align the telescope. Later the clouds had cleared up and we quickly looked at the Moon after which Gabby grilled the Year 7’s on the alignment process.

So this comment from a year 7 student; 

My favourite part would have to be seeing the moon through the telescope and Gaby’s quizzes. 

A couple of weeks ago, we also dabbled in some nightsky photography, all inspired after reading though Phil Hart’s eBook – a great no fuss book to get you on the way to taking amazing images of the sky, lots of inspiring pictures too. Still a lot of work and exploring to do, but here is my image of the Southern Cross.

Southern Cross in the clouds taken with DSLR

Southern Cross and pointers in the clouds taken with DSLR

The Southern Cross is a very important constellation for the Southern Hemisphere. It is always visible in our night sky as it is very close to the South Celestial Pole (SCP). Unlike the Northern Hemisphere, we don’t have a star like Polaris which shows us where the pole is, but we do have a number of ways to find it, here are three by CSIRO’s Science by Email. So the Southern Cross (or Crux) tells us where South is and hence used for navigation, features on the Australian and New Zealand flags and is always the one constellation all students, teachers and parents can pick out in the sky.

Australian Flag showing the Southern Cross

Australian Flag showing the Southern Cross

There are also two pointers that ‘point’ to the Southern Cross,  Alpha Centauri, the brighter star and Beta Centauri, the closest to the Crux. The next post will feature Alpha Centauri, so stay tuned.

Viewing Venus required the lunar filter as it is so bright. You can definitely see it is in a gibbous phase and I love the colours the atmosphere is creating around the planet. We then connected the camera to take this image of Venus.

Venus. Single shot with DSLR and telescope.

Venus. Single shot with DSLR and telescope.

Technical details;

Southern Cross: Canon EOS 700D DSLR with 17-85mm lens. 10 sec exposure, ISO 1600, 17mm focal length. No post image processing.

Venus: Canon EOS 700D DSLR with 12″SCT. 1/60 sec exposure, ISO 100. Cropped image.

Fun in the Sun

This term has been quite busy organizing the Astrophotography component of the program, so I will have lots of great images to show you soon as the schools have been getting right on board and taking lots and lots of photos. You have seen the image of the Moon we stitched together at Taylors Lakes. Since then I headed back during the day time to look at the Sun and more images of the Moon and Sun were taken as the Year 7s and heaps more had their first close up look at the Sun and sunspots.

Cresent Moon in the clouds at Taylors Lakes. Good idea for the Astrophoto Comp too...

Cresent Moon in the clouds at Taylors Lakes. Good idea for the Astrophoto Comp too…

Why look at the Sun, you ask? There was no eclipse or Transit, you say. You have to realize that the Sun is cool to look at on any day and that there are a number of satellites whose sole purpose is just to look at the Sun. SOHO and Yohkoh are two such satellites who look at the Sun in a variety of wavelengths so we can study the Sun’s magnetic field, it’s surface temperature, Coronial Mass Ejections (CMEs) and more. At Taylors Lakes SC, the Year 7 students had been studying the Sun and were eager to spot some sunspots.

Sunspots are interesting in themselves as the number of sunspots oscillates over an 11 year cycle. We are currently in a cycle peak, but not experiencing as many sunspots as we would expect, which has scientists baffled. During the maximum, we have a lot more CMEs, some of which are directed towards Earth. This in turn means aurora around the poles and possible disruption to power supplies and electrical equipment. It also means the Sun is about to swap it’s magnetic field, which also happens every 11 years when we have a maximum of sunspots. It did surprise a lot of students that some of these sunspots are bigger than the Earth!

The Sun and sunspots taken at Taylors Lakes on 31st July

The Sun and sunspots taken at Taylors Lakes on 31st July

So what are sunspots? In a nutshell; a cold spot on the surface of the Sun caused by disturbances in the Sun’s magnetic field. As the Sun is essentially a ball of fluid, the equator moves faster than the poles and the magnetic field gets disrupted as can be seen in this great video. They also come in pairs like two poles of a magnet. You can follow these spots over the course of a week or two to determine the time of one Solar rotation – the time taken for the Sun to rotate once.

Students looking at the Sun at Taylors Lakes with teacher Rob Davie

Students looking at the Sun at Taylors Lakes with teacher Rob Davie

So on the day of our solar viewing, we had classes of Year 7’s looking through the telescope and counting the sunspots. It does take a while for your eyes to adjust, but we were counting up to 14 sunspots. Many of the Science and Math classes came out to have a look as well and there was recess and lunchtime with more students. In all, well over 200 students saw the Sun that day. Many teachers also dropped by, the English/History teacher made the comment; ‘why didn’t I study Science?’ Why indeed??

Queue waiting patiently to have a look at the Sun

Queue waiting patiently to have a look at the Sun

A great day of viewing, lots of images of the Sun and the Moon through the clouds. And just to give you a better idea of the number of students looking through the telescope, the queue was like this most of the day!

I headed back to Taylors Lakes during National Science Week to talk to a small group of Year 7 students. The idea was to look at the Sun through the telescope and do some activities.

Year 7's at Taylors Lakes about to tackle some indoor astronomy

Year 7’s at Taylors Lakes about to tackle some indoor astronomy

Unfortunately the rain had other ideas, so we were kept inside. Yet this meant we got to go though how to set up and align the telescope in detail, we then did the Pocket Solar System and looked at the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon and Earth to get a better feel for where we are in the Solar System.

Learning how to use the telescope and getting a closeup view of the library wall

Learning how to use the telescope and getting a closeup view of the library wall

How big and how far away do you think the Moon is if the Earth was a soccer ball?

How big and how far away do you think the Moon is if the Earth was a soccer ball?

Some of the Year 7’s have put together some presentations of their work investigating the Sun. You can find their great work in the links below.

Daniela M & Jessica 7G

Demi 7G

Emmerson, Shylah and Stephanie 7G

James and Joichiro 7F

Nicollette 7F

Alex, Eric, Justin 7F

Katie and Paige 7G

Elena 7F

Astrophotography Competition


I am very excited to launch the Telescopes in Schools Astrophotography Competition.

Slide2The theme is

Colours of Space

There are two categories listed below with some ideas and resources to help you get on your way;

Category 1: Traditional Astrophotography


  • planets
  • moon
  • sun, eclipse, transit
  • deep sky – nebula, star clusters
  • night sky – without the telescope, Milky Way, star trails, constellation
  • atmospheric – sunrise, sunset, rainbow, sun and moon halos, lightning, clouds
  • landscape – image of group with telescope, Moon in the background or Venus

Resources and inspiration:

  • Phil Hart – Melbourne Astrophotographer and winner of 2012 David Malin Award
  • Jerry Lodriguss – Comprehensive how to on his website Astropix
  • Alan Dyer – range of Astrophotography images to inspire
  • These websites also talk about the equipment used and the settings to give you an idea of how to take your images

Post production for images is a big part of Astrophotography. Here are some recommended software and tutorials:

Category 2: Digital Art


  • Take images you have taken through the telescope or just with the camera of an astronomy theme and turn them into a work of art like the background of our poster
  • Take some raw Hubble images and create your own colourised nebula or galaxy.

Resources and Inspiration:

This competition will be open to all TiS participants only. This includes, students, teachers and volunteers. If you are not participating in the TiS program, there is still a way to be involved! We would love to have a People’s Choice Award. So as the images come in, they will be posted on Pintrest for everyone to vote on. So get involved, get your friends, parents, tweeps and pets involved and tell us which image you like the best.

Below are the terms and conditions for the competition:

  1. Only open to students and teachers from participating TiS schools and University of Melbourne TiS Volunteers
  2. Entries are due by 9am Friday, 11th October, 2013. To be emailed or transferred electronically to
  3. Category 1: Traditional Astrophotography – images taken during the entire TiS program may be used. Images that have been taken as a group may be used but MUST be processed by the individual entrant. Possible images include planetary, deep sky, lunar, solar, constellations, atmospheric, and landscape. Cameras which may be used (but not exclusively)  DSLR with and without the telescope, CMOS or CCD cameras connected to the telescope. The use of smart phone or instant cameras is not excluded, but the image quality needs to be satisfactory (see point x below).
  4. Category 2: Digital Art – Your own images may be used or Hubble public images not protected by copyright. Please refer to the copyright conditions for all Hubble images. Full credits are required when using the Hubble images.
  5. Each entry must include the following text (Max 50 words) emailed to to accompany the image
    • Name and email address
    • School
    • Teacher contact for student entries
    • Title
    • Category
    • Equipment used, e.g. camera, telescope
    • Camera settings e.g. exposure time, ISO setting
    • Post image processing, e.g. software used, stacked image, stitched image
  6. Files must be of a high resolution for printing and display. e.g. 2-3 MB JPEG files or equivalent for A3 size. The maximum printed image will be A3.
  7. Six prizes will be awarded and prize winners will be displayed at the Melbourne Planetarium. All entries will be digitally displayed on the Telescopes in Schools website and TiS Pintrest site. Competition winners decided by the panelists will be final.

The competition is brought to you by the TiS program, University of Melbourne, the Laby Foundation and Museum Victoria, with support from CAASTRO and Quantum Victoria.