Under Darker Skies – Stargazing in the Blue Mountains

From stargazing tours to DIY adventures and amateur astronomy clubs, the Blue Mountains has many options for exploring the night sky. (Photo: Liam Foster)

By Linda Moon

Taken for granted, the night sky is integral to the health of the whole natural world, including our own health and wellbeing. Local Blue Mountains astronomy groups are helping us rediscover and protect it from light pollution.


Key Points:

  • The Blue Mountains is one of the best locations for stargazing and astronomy close to Sydney.
  • Darkness is critical to environmental and human health but dark skies are diminishing due to human activities. There are things you can do to make a difference.
  • Local astronomy groups with support from Blue Mountains City Council are working to establish a Dark Sky Park in Linden.

I’m standing in a dark field in the country. My eyeball, pressed to a telescope, is focused on a shining orb with a dazzling halo suspended in the vast velvety blackness of space.

“Whoah!” It’s one of those moments when the English language fails.

Blue Mountains Astronomical Club

Behind me, voices crawl out of the darkness. The shadowy shapes of the Blue Mountains Astronomical Club (it’s their first public open night) shift from one big telescope to another.

In astronomy – as in photography – it’s all about the gear and epic subject matter. Tonight, the club members are freely sharing it with my family. The Tarantula Nebula. Close-ups of craters of the moon. Jupiter. Sirius. Distant galaxies. Better than Netflix, there’s something deeply connected and palpably real about a bunch of humans sharing the dark and the wonders of creation.

“It makes you wonder what the point of all this [outer space] is,” muses Jason, owner of the scope I’ve been peering through. I can’t see his face. At 9.30pm, Hampton is a dark place.

In a moment reminiscent of Star Trek, Alexander Massey (the club’s founder and a natural educator) shoots a laser beam at the heavens. For our benefit, he traces out the shapes of the constellations. The beam darts over to cloudy clusters of stars. The nearest to Earth is the Andromeda Galaxy. Even so, it’s around 160,000 light years away, Alexander says. Using the analogy of jumping in your car and hitting the hyperdrive button, he says “it will take 160,000 years to get there.”

stargazing in the blue mountains

Blue Mountains Astronomical Club enjoying a night out with the stars. (Photo: Alexander Massey)

Magic and mystery of the night sky

Clustered around Nick’s telescope, the group is thrilled about the Great Red Spot. The most famous feature of Jupiter, it’s a persistent gigantic storm (the biggest in the solar system) that’s been raging over the surface of the planet for centuries, Alexander says.

Another boon of the night is the shadow transit of an eclipse on Jupiter. “Seeing the Great Red Spot during an open night, and then to see a shadow transit of an eclipse, that’s like winning the lottery,” Alexander enthuses.

Peering through the telescope, I’m besotted by two moons hovering around the planet. Over 146 moons have been identified in Jupiter’s orbit. Multiple planetary moons are common in outer space, Alexander reveals: one of many tantalising astro tidbits.

Dark skies of the Blue Mountains

Ironically, Alexander lives in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. “The best skies are away from the city,” he explains. “You’re forever fighting conditions.” This includes air and light pollution, mist and dew (which fogs up optics).

Researching micro-climates years ago led the club to a site in Katoomba.

But suitable dark, accessible sites are literally shrinking, he says. Growing light pollution and unavailability of the Katoomba site, have meant the club have moved their activities to Hampton.

“On nights when there is no mist, the prevailing conditions are bone dry, extremely transparent sky and outstandingly good for astronomy.” – Alexander Massey.

Linden observatory

Linden Observatory is the biggest publicly accessible telescope in NSW. (Photo: Linden Observatory)

Linden Observatory

Also concerned about preserving the Blue Mountains night sky is Ian Bridges, a trustee of Linden Observatory. The observatory, established in the 1940s, is a heritage and educational site. Crucially, it has the largest publicly accessible telescope in NSW, he says.

Historically a dark place – it’s located on a plateau bound by national park on 40 hectares of land – light from Sydney is a growing problem for the observatory. It’s additionally been affected by flight paths.

Aircraft have bright navigation lights, but a bigger problem is turbulence, Ian says. Astronomy relies on what’s known as good ‘seeing’ conditions. Essentially, this is about a stable atmosphere: “When things don’t move you can see more detail.”

Aircraft form turbulence and also contrails which can disrupt seeing conditions and visibility over very large areas, he says. The effects of a plane flying past can last for hours afterwards.

On the upside, the local community is taking action.

Advocacy for the skies

Blue Mountains City Council is supporting efforts to have Linden recognised as Australia’s first Dark Sky Community” – Ian Bridges.

Certification through the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance (ADSA) would involve reducing lighting in the village.

“More efficient lighting would start to give the stars back to people,” Ian says. He’s met school kids from Sydney who’ve never seen the Milky Way before.

The night sky is something we take for granted until it’s taken away. “It’s part of our long-term heritage as humans on the planet,” Ian says. “It’s tied up with our creation stories. There are so many stories about the constellations and mythology around it, the zodiac and the gods, and in indigenous astronomy; the Dark Emu.

“To be losing that in modern times because of technology, it’s just another way that people get out of touch with nature.”

stargazing at linden observatory

Linden Observatory, an advocate for the Dark Sky Movement. (Photo: Linden Observatory)

Growing light pollution

Local astronomer and co-founder of Blue Mountains Stargazing, Dimitri Douchin, is another Dark Sky advocate.

Darkness is essential to the circadian rhythms of humans and other life forms, biodiversity and ecology.” – Dimitri Douchin.

Light pollution can disrupt migratory patterns, reproduction, plant cycles and more. Dimitri cites the example of the native Bogong Moth whose migration has been impacted by light pollution.

A growing body of research shows light exposure at night is linked to human health risks including poorer sleep and cancer. Lighting at night also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Light pollution is the fastest growing pollutant in the world, and increasing by almost 10 per cent each year.” – Australasian Dark Sky Alliance.

Which means a dark night sky could be a thing of the past for much of the world.

 “We’re losing the fainter stars and we’re losing some of the star patterns,” Dimitri says. Satellites contribute to the problem as well and create new phenomena that may be puzzling or even frightening to remote communities, he says.

“The sky is an integral part of the culture, as is the landscape. If you dig out a mountain, then you’ve lost that landscape. If you do the same with the sky, if you send too many satellites, the sky is brightening and you lose some of the culture.”

blue mountains stargazing

Astronomer Dimitri Douchin showing off the stars in the Blue Mountains. (Photo: Tourism Australia)

Blue Mountains Stargazing scores award

Dimitri, an adjunct researcher in cultural astronomy at Western Sydney University, reminds us that the night sky is the basis of meaning and calendars in all cultures. “The sky is a mirror to our identity. Every culture in the world has put meaning or stories into the sky.”

As dark skies are becoming more rare, more people are curious to see them, he says. His awarded tours (Blue Mountains Stargazing won Bronze for the NSW Tourism Award in the Tour Operator Category 2023) showcase the wonders of the heavens to many. This includes people from Asia who’ve never seen a starry sky.

“For me, it’s about feeling alive,” he says.

“When we see a starry night we become children again. We’re in awe; we have that sense of connectedness and togetherness where the focus point is not a TV.” – Dimitri Douchin

“Everybody has a personal relationship with the sky. And that’s what makes it so global to everybody.” added Dimitri.

photo of saturn by alexander massey

Saturn is currently on show. The magical world of astronomy and stargazing:– a thing in the Blue Mountains. (Photo: Alexander Massey)

Where to go stargazing in the Blue Mountains

You don’t need a telescope. Binoculars are fantastic astro-tools. I also recommend an app called Skysafari.”  – Alexander Massey

Blue Mountains Stargazing

Astronomer led tours including storytelling, the use of lasers to identify constellations, and the chance to peer into a telescope, run every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Wentworth Falls picnic area. Gift vouchers and high-end tours are also available.

https://www.bluemountainsstargazing.com.au

Linden Observatory

Monthly public viewing nights (soon to expand to more often) run by Western Sydney Amateur Astronomy Group for a small contribution of $10 towards upkeep of the site.

Book at https://www.wsaag.org/index.php/club/linden-observing-site

Blue Mountains Astronomical Club

Monthly meet-ups for members, possible future public events. You can also contact the club to organise paid private, group or school tours.

https://bmastro.org.au/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1927690317312646

DIY Stargazing

Ian and Alexander recommend the following hot spots:

  • Hargraves Lookout, Mount Blackheath Lookout (and other lookouts in Blackheath)
  • Katoomba Falls Reserve
  • Narrowneck, Katoomba
  • Govetts Leap and other lookouts in Katoomba

Even close to a big city, we can still do something that’s meaningful to preserve the night sky.”  – Dimitri Douchin.


Take Action:

  • Learn more about environmentally sensitive lighting from ADSA (the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance.)
  • Light only the area you need, using the lowest intensity you can, and avoiding light spill by shielding with curtains, etc. Choose downward facing light and (if you need outdoor lighting): sensor lighting. Use warmer red-spectrum lighting over blue-spectrum light. The latter has a worse impact on wildlife and human health at night.
  • Get your home or business certified as Dark Sky Sensitive.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

Planetary Health Initiative partners

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About Linda Moon

Linda Moon has lived in the upper Blue Mountains since childhood and is a freelance writer for Australian media. A qualified naturopath, permaculture designer, mother and former student of social work, her passion is building local community, gardening, mental, emotional, social, housing and environmental health – all of which are linked!

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