Mt John Observatory

The other day I took an Intercity coach up to Lake Tekapo; a beautiful blue lake that is fed by glaciers in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. The purpose of my visit was to go to the Mt John Observatory which is part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury. The observatory does lots of professional research in the areas of near-Earth object (NEO) identification and gravitational micro-lensing amongst other things.

Mt John Observatory
The Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo CREDIT: Stuart
As you might imagine, the observatory is on a mountain (more of a hill really) named Mt John. There is a big cluster of domes spread around the site with some for use by the public. In fact, the area has a growing astronomy-tourism industry and the public-use telescopes are run by a local company; Earth & Sky. Earth & Sky even run a small coffee/refreshment van parked in a little car park just to the left of my picture above. There are also local ordanances to keep light pollution at a minimum and protect the clear skies.

While I was at the observatory I was lucky enough to enjoy the hospitality of Alan Gilmore and Pam Kilmartin. Both of them are very active in astronomy, especially in NEO research and variable stars. Between them they have discovered over forty asteroids - some of which have been given names from New Zealand/Mauri culture such as 3400 Aotearoa and 3563 Canterbury. Alan was also lucky enough to discover a visible nova whilst observing one night. He managed to point a few of the observatory's telescopes at it (with the help of other astronomers observing that night) and so was able to get a good position and even spectra within a pretty short amount of time. These were then sent out to other astronomers around the world as an IAU (International Astronomical Union) circular. In recognition of the discovery, Alan now has a 'Nova' award from the AAVSO on his wall.

Mt John Observatory
Telescope domes at the Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo. Some of the Southern Alps can be seen in the background. CREDIT: Stuart
Unfortunately, on the night I was there they had bad weather - it was cloudy and rained most of the night - so I didn't get to see any stars. However, it did clear at some point in the early morning because I woke up to sunshine - typical! Still, it did give me a chance to take the daytime pictures above.

I had a great time seeing a working optical observatory and will write more about it when I have time. Before I left, I added my name to the star-studded (sorry for the puns) visitor book amongst such luminaries as Patrick Moore (Sky at Night) and Aaron Price (Slacker Astronomy). My thanks go to Alan and Pam for looking after me while I was there.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 11th Feb 2006 (23:45 UTC) | Permalink
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