By Kristin Murdock 13 June 2023, 7:20 AM
Life-long star-gazer and accomplished astronomer and scientist, Donna Burton from Coonabarabran initially thought her nomination to be awarded Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) was a scam.
“I actually deleted the email,” she said. “But when I found out it really was from the Governor General’s office, I was shocked and surprised to be nominated for something I love. I have no idea who originally nominated me and I’m still not sure if I want to thump them or hug them!”
Ms Burton or Donna The Astronomer, has had a lifelong love of the stars and was given her unique moniker from some young children at Baradine.
“I was visiting a group of young students in Baradine to show them Mercury crossing the sun, they made up a song that, instead of being Dora the Explorer, I was Donna The Astronomer.”
The name stuck and Ms Burton used it as the name of her business, giving people a personal experience of the night sky.
Ms Burton’s involvement in astronomy has seen her employed as astronomer and science communicator, as well as head astronomer and outreach coordinator at Milroy Observatory since 2017.
Previously she worked at Siding Spring Observatory and is also a researcher at the Centre of Astrophysics for the University of Southern Queensland. But, Ms Burton said, her love of astronomy started in childhood.
“My dad and grandfather were drovers,” she said. “As a child, I travelled with them and always looked up at the sky. Dad served in Vietnam and when he returned wanted to head back to the outback and I went too. My love of the skies continued but I was never really aware it could lead to a job.”
When Ms Burton’s boyfriend (now husband) bought her a telescope for their second Christmas together, she shared her love of outer space with anyone willing to listen.
“I showed my father-in-law Saturn and Jupiter and the look on his face was amazing. I knew I wanted to share this with everyone.”
Ms Burton has known of her award since last Tuesday but was sworn to secrecy. “That isn’t easy,” she said. “And the whole time I was going through imposter syndrome – why me and not someone else?”
Ms Burton has previously been in the public eye thanks to her passion and contribution to the astronomy field. In 2022 she was Lachlan Shire Council’s Australia Day Ambassador and repeated the honour for Narromine Shire Council this year. She was a baton bearer for the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and named as one of RM Williams 20 Living Legends of the Bush in 2018.
Ms Burton was the first Australian woman to discover two comets but is committed to popularising astronomy, especially among country kids. “I can talk about astronomy until the cows come home,” she said.
As for her collection of telescopes – “they breed like rabbits” – and have most recently been out and about for Narrabri Shire Council astronomy night.
“I was totally blown away by this honour,” Ms Burton said. “I know there are a few others on the Honours list that come from across our region. I’m in good company with Peter Shinton (who received an OAM for service to local government and the Coonabarabran community) who I have known for 20 years.”
As for slowing down and resting on her laurels after this award? No way.
“Sir Roger Penrose won a Nobel Prize for physics at 95 – a Nobel Prize was always my aim as a child. While I may not get to that point, the good thing about studying science is that age is irrelevant. I should finish my PhD next year and I doubt I will ever retire.”
In community life, away from astronomy, Ms Burton was previously the building manager at the Coonabarabran Community Centre (formerly Coonabarabran Rural Transaction Centre) and is current Chair of the Coonabarabran and District Chamber of Commerce.
And after all these years in the field of astronomy, does she have a favourite “object in the sky?”
“Definitely,” Ms Burton told the Western Plains App “My favourite is a little dwarf planet call Haumea which is past Pluto. It has a day that is four hours long and is shaped like an Aussie Rule football. It’s so cool.”
Ms Burton will receive her well-deserved award at a ceremony at Government House in September.