Maleny perfect for Astro Tourism

Ken Wishaw preparing for an evening Stargazing in Maleny

Ken Wishaw preparing for an evening Stargazing in Maleny

by Dale Jacobsen

There is something inspiring and grounding about stargazing – seeing tiny planets zoom into magnificent view through a telescope; reminding us how small we are. Writer Dale Jacobsen recently joined Dr Ken Wishaw on a monthly stargazing evening in Maleny, and discovered how just perfect our location is for viewing the universe.  

Everyone has their favourite planet; mine is Jupiter. Last night I viewed it through a telescope. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to see, not a picture, but the real thing. The tiny dot above my head came alive with four moons and cloud bands.

It gave me a peak into the world that so enthuses Dr Ken Wishaw. He is undertaking post-graduate work in Astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, looking at the causes of urban light pollution.

“I needed to retire as a medical practitioner a couple of years ago and was looking for something that would combine my interest in the environment with my hobby,” explained Ken.

“I have been fascinated by the universe since my uncle showed me Saturn when I was eight. My father bought my first telescope when I was at high school.”

Standing beneath a dazzling display of stars on a moonless night in Maleny, it was difficult to believe that 80% of the world’s population can barely see the stars.

“I was camping in the Grand Canyon in Arizona a few years back,” said Ken, “when a woman started crying. She said it was the first time in her life she had seen stars, so I gave a talk to the people gathered around, explaining the different features.”

Ken is very keen to see urban light pollution become a thing of the past. The Sunshine Coast Council has an urban lighting master plan that, after his research review at USQ, Ken believes is the most advanced in the world.

They are looking at replacing all street lights with LEDs. This would halve the power bill and greatly reduce light pollution. It is possible that, within five years, 99% of all Australian street lighting will be LED.

As a member of the Brisbane Astronomical Society, Ken has begun holding monthly Stargazing evenings in Maleny. He was assisted by Councillor Jenny McKay and the council to carefully assess 13 sites between Maleny and Eumundi.

“The best site was Howell’s Knob, but it wasn’t suitable because of the narrow access road,” said Ken. “The second-best site was right at the Maleny Golf Course. It’s not quite as good as out at Uluru, but it would be 90% as good.”

It seems that Astro Tourism is a booming industry. In New Zealand, up to 70,000 visitors a year come from those countries that cannot see stars, mostly Asian countries. “I climbed a hill at Lake Tekapo in New Zealand one night when it was minus 10oC, and there were five busloads of tourists looking at the stars,” said Ken.

Ken’s telescope (there are usually two or three at a viewing night) is a large 14-inch reflector which is fully computerised. “I need to feed in my exact location, do a two-star reference, then the computer will guide the telescope to whichever feature I tell it.”

In the glow of the setting sun, Elysia Collins sees Saturn, watched by mum Caroline and Ken

In the glow of the setting sun, Elysia Collins sees Saturn, watched by mum Caroline and Ken

After I had my fill of watching Jupiter, Ken turned the scope to Saturn. I still see the image of the super bright planet with its rings.

One of the people with us, four-year-old Elysia Collins, looked into the eyepiece and excitedly identified her favourite planet. Her mother, Caroline Ellis, said that this year Elysia discovered stars and can’t get enough.

I was amazed at how much this little girl knows of our universe. It goes without saying that these Stargazing nights are open to all ages, whether or not people belong to the Brisbane Astronomical Society.

“We welcome everyone,” said Ken. “People are invited to bring along their own telescopes if they wish; although we ask that, if they need help setting them up, they arrive well before sunset so we can assist them.”

Two other keen astronomers regularly assist. Richard Sharwood specialises in taking photos of the night sky through his own telescope that is calibrated to compensate for the rotation of the earth. Sean Hammond made his own telescope, with a whopping 18-inch diameter mirror.

“He made it from the glass of an old coffee table,” laughed Ken. “He ground it to greater than 1/1000 inch accuracy, before it was coated with aluminium. In astronomy, size does matter. It is a superb scope.”

I saw and learnt so much from Ken in just an hour’s viewing. For example, as we watched the sun set, he turned to the east and explained that the dark blue band just above the horizon is the shadow of the earth cast out into space.

Using a laser beam after dark, he explained in detail how to use the Southern Cross and its pointers to determine the position of the South Celestial Pole.

Ken’s dream is to establish Maleny as a hub of Sunshine Coast Astro Tourism, to erect an open air planetarium. “We have the plans, and hopefully can site it near the Golf Club,” said Ken.

For further information on Maleny Stargazers, visit their facebook page: Sunshine Coast Dark Sky Astronomers (Australia).