In this time of uncertainty, we’re turning to the skies

Looking to the skies: large numbers of Victorians are taking up astronomy. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash
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Lockdown, closed borders and growing excitement about a planned return to the Moon are powering a local surge in interest in astronomy. Zara Kernan reports.

About 30,000 people tuned into the Astronomical Society of Victoria live stream of last week’s lunar eclipse, with hundreds more attending in person—a sign of a strong increase in interest in the sky.

Society president Chris Rudge said a large number of Victorians were taking up astronomy.

“I guess people were looking for things to do, and astronomy is one thing that you can do on your own, or you can equally well do it with a group of friends,” he said. 

Astronomy speaker and writer Dr Martin George said people were making more enquiries about astronomy.

“They’ve been looking for things to do that don’t involve travel and don’t necessarily involve much expense,” he said.

We have a total eclipse of the moon … and that seems to have generated a lot more interest than usual as well.

Victorian sky-watcher Tahni Dawe-Wright said this year she’d watched the stars more frequently and was excited to see the lunar eclipse.

“I watched it in the common area of the apartments, and there were heaps of people outside on the balconies as well … all looking to watch the moon,” she said.

In this time of uncertainty, we're turning to the skies
Sky-watcher Tahni Dawe-Wright. Picture: Zara Kernan.

Dr George said recent news about explorations on Mars and returning to the moon had also developed people’s interest in astronomy.

“We’re setting the scene for that return to the moon and it’s exciting for people who remember the Apollo era. But it’s also exciting for people who weren’t even around when Apollo astronauts landed on the moon because they’ve never actually experienced the excitement of people going there,” he said.

NASA’s announcement of Artemis, a project to send people back to the moon, is causing further excitement, he said.

The significance of that is that NASA is planning to send the first woman to the moon and that fact alone has generated a lot of public interest.

Monash astronomy Professor Daniel Price said being locked down and unable to travel had likely fueled Victorians’ interest in astronomy.

“It’s relatively easy to order telescope equipment online … it doesn’t take much to actually observe the night sky really well. Things that used to be very technical astronomy hardware … you now just have one in your smartphone,” he said.

“It’s actually really easy to do really good astronomy from your backyard.”

Astrophotographer at Optics Central Melbourne Bill Stent said demand for telescopes had increased significantly.

“People were locked down and looking for things to do,” he said.

The next significant astronomical event is on August 2, when Saturn will be in opposition. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences observations page lists it as one of the “seven astronomical events not to miss in 2021”. The site says: “Opposition occurs when a planet (one that is further from the Sun than Earth) is in line with Earth and the Sun – then the distance between us and the planet is a minimum and the planet is best seen.”

Jupiter follows in opposition soon after, on August 20.

In this time of uncertainty, we're turning to the skies
Lunar Eclipse on May 26, 2021. Picture by Zara Kernan.

Why is it called a blood moon?

Mr Rudge said blood moons were the result of blue light being absorbed when light passes through the atmosphere during a lunar eclipse.

“The lunar eclipse is often described as a blood moon as the moon passes into the shadow of the Earth. From the sun, the light passes through our atmosphere,” he said.

“Where the blue light is absorbed, the red light passes through and illuminates the moon. And this gives it a blood-red appearance.”