As the sun sinks towards the red dunes of the Simpson Desert, the first stars appear in the indigo, eastern sky. A group of people, bulky in winter coats, learn that these are the ‘alpha’ stars, the brightest in their respective constellations.
One by one, they peer into an enormous 11” Celestron telescope to see the stars up close. With the magnification, it’s easy to see that they’re different colours – some are red, others blue or yellow or white. With the darkness of the desert to the west and only the lights of a very small town to the east, Birdsville is the best place for a Star Show, and the Birdsville Star Show is one of the must-do activities in Birdsville.
Sandra McShane has an immense knowledge of the night sky. Her passion and understanding are evident as she speaks about the different constellations, explains ‘light years’ and points out the planets amongst the stars. She shows the group constellations that are invisible to the naked eye because they’re in a different galaxy and explains where the stars are and why they twinkle.
Staring upwards we see Scorpio, Sirius (Orion’s Dog), the Southern Cross and many more constellations with their own stories and history. Sandra knows when they were discovered and by whom and what each constellation meant to the ancients, those who relied upon the night sky for direction and prophesy.
Throughout the 45-minute session we see three satellites moving swiftly amongst the stars and it’s a competition to see who can spot them. We see a constellation called the ‘Jewel Box’, which is so called for its colourful array of stars. It’s one that is almost invisible to the naked eye but the telescope magnifies the stars and intensifies their colours. Sandra explains why the stars are different colours and what it means. There’s no question from the group throughout evening that she can’t answer.
Although we huddle together against the cold, looking forward to a warm meal at the pub, we’re sad that the session is over. Our minds are pulsing with new knowledge and we’re reflecting on the things we’ve seen – the ‘butterfly’ constellation and Saturn, its rings clearly visible around the planet itself. Saturn was so clear that it looked just like a textbook image.
Only in Birdsville, a tiny dot of light in an outback of darkness, are such wonders of the night sky revealed. We’re lucky that we have Sandra’s star show to guide us through the immense galaxy above. We’ll soon be in the desert, sleeping beneath the stars, and will be able to recognise Saturn, Orion and Alpha Centauri and appreciate all that the outback has to offer – even if it’s thousands of light years away.