The Uluru Astronomy Weekend (Long Read) Review

As I am sure you all know by now last week we went to Uluru to attend the CAASTRO Astronomy Weekend. I thought I would do a post on my thoughts and findings, what we enjoyed and what we did not.

It started on Friday afternoon (we had already been at the Resort for 2 days), we missed the Welcome Ceremony, as we were being mucked about trying to arrange our hire car, but it was not really something that bothered either of us. We then missed the first lecture on how the universe began, but again we pretty much knew what this was all about and caught just the tail end of it. We then bolted, literally to the next lecture; Astro Photography Essentials by Professor Steven Tingay. This was one of the main reason’s I was here, let’s face it, so I was fairly keen to hear what he had to say, shed some light on this topic from a professional.

Now he did admit, he was a keen amateur when it came to astro photography, I will admit he had some fancy home made toys for mechanically tracking stars for photography, however I thought his method, long tedious, over thought and quite frankly not really required. He gave over technical means to figure out what, when and when, shoot with grey cards and white cards and varying different exposure lengths. Then taking 20 or so shots and then stacking them all together in a program I have never heard of for shots I did not find very impressive – to be honest. I know a lot of it is personal taste, however I found his images all too light, not enough dark to balance out the stars. I get the dark and lights cards to eliminate the noise, but I can do that in camera anyway. What he took in a whole night I can pretty much get in 1 shot.

We then met up for the Stellar Sounds of Silence, I honestly have no idea how it varied from the normal version, apart from our guest speakers…….perhaps it was very similar? Anyway it was a great night, we all travelled by coach out to the Giles Site and with a glass of champagne in hand and 1 single canapé (maybe there were more, but I never saw any?) Moth and I set up tripods to catch the sunset of Kata Tjuta, truly stunning. They called everyone down to be seated before the sunset had finished, so we stayed a little longer, chatting to the Resorts resident astronomer Mark (who was also doing time lapse of the sunset). By the time we made it down there were no seats left together so we were split up, no big deal it’s not like we were on our honeymoon or anything. I sat with a group of over enthusiastic American tourists –  we actually had a lot of fun on my table. Poor Moth was sat with the scientists and was listening to their techno babble all evening! Usually his sort of thing, but apparently they made him feel like he knew very little (not intentionally). Anyway there was a didgeridoo player (non Aboriginal and they had to get special permission as they do not play it this far south, but the tourists expect it). Then there were the aboriginal dancers. This was followed by entrée and then a lovely buffet for mains. The wine flowed, just not on our table apparently, I asked several times for water but never got any?? All this while watching the afternoon sun’s swan song into the desert sands…………all in all not a bad way to end a day.

Then we had out guest speakers; Prof. Roger Davies, Assoc. Prof. Emma Ryan Weber, and of course our Host Dr Karl. They discussed various points about our solar system, pointed at various systems, then all the lights were turned off and a laser pointer brought out and we were shown various star clusters, southern lights zodiacal lights, Saturn, milky way and more. This was all very interesting and entertaining. They then bought out the telescopes and a few of us again set up cameras on tripods. I was so busy with the camera I didn’t try out the telescopes (I wish I had, more on this later), and completely missed dessert! Another rush to get back on the coach and get back to Town Square for our photography session. Just as well we had all the camera gear, there was no time to go back to the hotel.

So about 20 or so of us all met up at the Heliport near the resort and attempted to take some astro photography, I guess my frustration was misplaced, it was a class for beginners after all and most of the students had no idea what they were doing, the professor and some other fellow astronomers were going about helping as best as they could. Unfortunately there was no concerted effort to work in tandem and people were turning lights on and off and using flashes and walking in front of other peoples cameras, so it became exceedingly frustrating and a bit of a lost cause. Moth and I gave up and left. We went out other nights and had a terrific time and much more luck on our own; but hey it’s all a learning curve right?

Saturday – Well PM was a repeat of the AM session, so we headed out early to do our own thing in the morning, then quite frankly we were having so much fun, we bypassed the PM Session as well. We didn’t attend the trivia lunch nor the grand ball – neither are really our thing. So Saturday as far as the conference went was a bust on our part…… I really cannot comment. Sorry bout that.

Sunday – we went to THE WONDERS OF THE MWA TELESCOPE Dr Karl & Professor Steven Tingay lecture, where they spent the morning attempting to get a mini model running and show the results, however there were failures, flat batteries, technical specs not performing and various other problems. Not to mention the tech talk needed Dr Karl as an interpreter, as he also did in the following Q&A session with the rest of the panel. This was interesting, but a little too techie even for me.

All in all I felt, if they want to tout it as family friendly event, they need to dumb it down; quite a bit, actually. From what I saw without Dr Karl playing interpreter, it would have been extremely frustrating, I understand that there is a lot of information to get through and a lot of scientific talk, but it still needs some polish. Also the lectures and events were too tightly packed together, you literally had to run between events and heaven forbid you need a drink or toilet stop………no time for it.  The photography class, needed a little more polish as well, and a little more structure if anyone was ever going to get a good shot from it, but I guess people who had never done it before, walked away with some idea on the process if they had none beforehand. I think the whole weekend was only really for the scientists and major enthusiasts………not interested amateurs like Moth and I.

So would I attend it again? Honestly I doubt it, it was interesting, but we found other things to do, which were far more interesting. I left the event feeling frustrated and kind of dumb…………not a nice feeling at all. Perhaps they will take my feedback on board (I did a questionnaire) and improve next time? If nothing else I can mark Uluru and the Surrounding area off my Bucket List!

Here is the full schedule

The last item, which is actually not part of the proceedings, but we booked it through the hotel was the Outback Sky Journeys Tour. I mentioned before that I did not get to look in the telescope the previous night, if I had I may not have done this tour at all. Moth enjoyed it, I thought it was a waste of time and money.

The Astro Tour will take you on a fact finding journey through the southern night sky, enhancing your knowledge on astronomy and its beginnings. Your resident astronomer will guide you through the evolution of the Universe.

Now I was super excited about this, but apparently I was expecting WAY too much, don’t get me wrong our resident Astronomer was fascinating and entertaining and he knew his stuff……….it’s just that the telescopes were small and we really couldn’t see anything that much different than I could with my camera. Sure the stars were closer, but still spots in the distance. I saw Saturn, but it was still just a tiny speck……I was hoping for MORE! Apparently the kind of detail I was looking for is only available through the Hubble Telescope, how was I to know, I have never looked in a small telescope before? Moth loved it and now wants a telescope. I think I will put my foot down on that one with a firm NO! It is entirely possible by this stage that I was exhausted and very sore (I had badly sprained my knee a few days before and the excessive, walking, climbing etc. was doing me in), so maybe on any other trip it would have been great? It can be done at the resort at any time of the year; especially winter.

So I love my astro photography, but apparently not such a big a fan on astronomy as I had originally thought!