#Mike Dalley remembers warming himself on the bonnet of a car, peering up at the night sky.
It was 1986, and he and his mother had driven 90 minutes west of Brisbane to spot Halley’s Comet. The beauty of out there, Dalley says, beyond the D’Aguilar Range and the light pollution of the city, was that the planets and the stars seemed to pop against the night sky
Now, he asks, imagine going eight hours west to Charleville, in Outback Queensland, and looking up.
“The true, true dark skies such as Charleville? They are pristine, gorgeous – full of stars,” Dalley says.
Dalley is the outgoing coordinator of the Charleville Cosmos Centre and a real people’s astronomer. He can get folks excited about space and the stars like no big budget sci-fi ever could. He also insists you can stargaze from anywhere – from Bondi Beach, St Kilda or Kangaroo Point. Still, there’s something special about the night sky in the Outback.
“The further west you go, the night sky gets better and better,” Dalley says. “That has to do with light pollution. The best thing about Charleville is it has skies that will make people’s jaws drop to the ground. Especially in winter.”
Maybe that’s why the Murweh Shire Council has invested $1.5 million since 2017 to turn the Charleville Cosmos Centre into a world-class astrotourism attraction. Four years ago, the centre was a single building with an observatory and a clutch of telescopes. Now it spans an entire precinct with a planetarium, museum and workshop, and a new observatory.
The museum features a bunch of impressive exhibits, including an interactive cosmos shuttle, a virtual reality experience, and a hologram of Dalley himself as he explains some of the mysteries of space. In the northern corner of the park, the planetarium is a 15-metre, six-projector monster made from vinyl and sail cloth (that’s significantly bigger than the popular 12.5-metre Brisbane planetarium, for example). Still, it’s the upgraded observatory that’s arguably the centre’s greatest asset. It boasts a retractable roof and four 14-inch Meade telescopes that operate across three sessions per night, allowing visitors to scan the moon, the Milky Way, and spy planets, nebulae and clusters of stars.
“If you want to get the very best view of the night sky, you want to do the last tour of the night,” Dalley says. “In winter, it’s freezing cold [note: the centre will supply you with a cosy blanket], but if you’re a nutter like I am when it comes to the stars, you must do that last tour. It’s so dark, you can almost touch the stars. That’s when the sky really gets going.”
Not that it’s all about night-time. Perhaps the Cosmos Centre’s most impressive recent acquisition is a Hydrogen Alpha Sun Telescope, one of only 10 of its size in the world. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the telescope applies a filter that allows you to see the sun in all its sun-spotty and solar-flared glory.
“We’ve had higher ups from rocket companies come out, a head of an observatory in Europe – they have no clue what we have out here,” Dalley says, laughing. “And they’d ask, ‘What have you built? This is amazing.’
“I’d say, ‘Come have a look at this.’ And I’d take them around the corner to have a look at the Hydrogen Alpha and they’d lose it. ‘What the hell?! You have one of these? I didn’t know they came this big for the public!’”
This might all sound like a fabulous Outback boondoggle, but the now completed additions to the centre have been projected to attract an additional 25,000 visitors annually. And Charleville sits at the intersection of the Warrego and Mitchell Highways, where those travelling west meet folks heading north on the legendary Matilda Way. The Charleville Cosmos Centre is just one of several attractions in town – including the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre, the Top Secret WWII Tour and the Charleville Bilby Experience – and the central stop on the Natural Sciences Loop.
In short: while Charleville is in the middle of the Outback, it’s also in the middle of the action.
“Absolutely. So many more people are coming through here now,” Dalley says. “You don’t need to go across the world to look at the stars. Forget that – it starts in our own backyard.”
Images courtesy of Mike Dalley, Inspiring Skies