Stargazing: Enthusiasts gather at Mount Burnett. Photo: Eddie Jim
Kids and pets are one thing, but have you ever named a planet? Scienceweek starts on Saturday and the Mount Burnett Observatory Association is giving the public the chance to name one of 30 newly discovered exoplanets – planets from solar systems other than our own.
Public entries submitted at four free talks organised by the group will be polled, with one chosen to be sent to the world’s astronomical naming authority, the International Astronomical Union.
There are a few rules, however. No living people, no pets and no brand names.
Perry Vlahos, one of five founding members of the observatory group, hopes Victorian children will be up for the challenge. “Pluto was named by a little girl and I think if we can do something similar and inspire their imaginations and set them on a path to discovering more about the universe, then our job is done.”
Vlahos, his fellow Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) members Ken Beard, Barry Cleland, Ray Schmidt and former professional astronomer James Murray, saved the Dandenong Ranges observatory by forming their not-for-profit group in 2011. Built in the early 1970s by Monash University, it was used by astrophysics students until 2004. Then it fell into disrepair and was in danger of being lost to the community forever.
“The observatory was going to be dismantled, the buildings perhaps razed to the ground and the telescopes taken to the local tip,” recalls Vlahos. Instead, he and his fellow astronomical enthusiasts incorporated, held an open day that helped raise the $5000 minimum they needed to keep going and set to work cleaning the buildings and restoring the 18-inch and 10-inch mirrors of the site’s two telescopes.
Four years later the association has grown to 120 members – the third-largest astronomical society in Victoria – and more than 3000 people have participated in community events such as “sidewalk astronomy”, where members take telescopes out into nearby streets and schools.
Co-founder James Murray, 45, a former astrophysicist at Swinburne turned modelling mathematician at NAB, is particularly excited about the talks the association is hosting this week, including one the University of New South Wales’ Duane Hamacher is delivering about Australian indigenous star law. “I think it’s amazing,” says Murray. “Why should we be teaching only about Orion and Scorpio when we could easily be teaching about the Emu, which is this great big constellation formed from the dark patches of the Milky Way?”
Murray, who has five children (plus one on the way), believes, like Vlahos, that gazing at the stars with knowledge is an immensely powerful experience for developing minds. “It does give you a sense of where you are in the universe,” he says.
“It puts everything into perspective. We are on a small planet, which is a long way from anywhere. And there are all these other exoplanets out there, but it’s going to take an eternity to reach them at any sort of speed. So, effectively, we’re on our own. That’s a pretty powerful message.”