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Starry-eyed in Broken Hill

Adventures
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Look to the skies in Broken Hill.

After 34 years working in the zinc mines, Broken Hill local Trevor Barry quit in order to dedicate his time to his true passion: astronomy. Jumping headfirst into a new obsession, Trevor swapped the glimmering minerals in the dark walls of an underground mine for the glimmering stars in the dark night sky.

Except for one catch: the stars out in Broken Hill don’t glimmer at all.

The conditions in Broken Hill – flat landscape, consistent weather patterns, little light pollution – aid in what is known as ‘atmospheric seeing’. When viewed through a less stable atmosphere, such as that found in most Australian cities, turbulence causes the gems of the night sky to appear to move, fluctuate, or, as we rather poetically put it, twinkle.

But Broken Hill has a rare stable atmosphere, which means two things: one, the stars don’t twinkle, they shine bright like diamonds; and two, it’s the perfect place for clear astronomical observation, and for a passion like Trevor’s to erupt.

In 2008, one amazing discovery took Trevor from passionate amateur to respected astronomer, and earned him the formal recognition of the world’s most famous space science organisation, NASA. One night on his home telescope – a 16-inch F4.5 Newtonian Reflector housed in an observatory he built himself just metres from his back door – Trevor took images of Saturn, a planet he had been imaging for years. But this time it looked different. There was a strange white spot on the images.

Trevor had caught on camera an event rarely documented: an electrical storm roaring above the planet’s surface. Even NASA’s Cassini imaging team, which receives data directly from a spaceship orbiting Saturn, had only seen the phenomenon a few times. For Trevor to have found it from Earth was truly remarkable.

So it’s no wonder his story should be of interest to ABC Open, who filmed a short documentary about him in 2014, shot by another Broken Hill local. “The documentary about Trevor was produced by Ray Denton as part of ABC Open’s My Crazy Passion project,” says Jenia Ratcliffe, ABC Open producer, who runs workshops in digital storytelling to enable people to produce high-quality content for broadcast to a national audience. “Ray turned up to one of my workshops and decided to make a film about Trevor because of his unquestionable dedication to astronomy.”

It’s no surprise that Broken Hill should be a destination for stargazers, with its stable atmosphere, pure light, and now its NASA cred. See the constellations, encounter the dazzling spiral of our own Milky Way, and perhaps you too will fall headfirst into a new obsession.

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