The magical night sky at Mt John Observatory. © Julian Apse

Tekapō stargazing

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A three-quarter moon rising over Mt John made conditions dubious for viewing Tekapō’s world-renowned night sky. 

But as we arrived at the summit, it became apparent that the moonlight had a silver lining. Under its glow, the snow-blanketed Mackenzie Basin shimmered with an electric, otherworldly magic. However much we saw through the telescopes over the next couple of hours, we’d already been transported to another planet. 

Set at 1,000-odd metres above sea level, Mt John’s summit has been home to the University of Canterbury’s astronomy mission since 1965. The Tekapō site was chosen on the strength of its relatively high number of clear nights and the absence of significant light pollution. 

But by the 1980s, those pristine sky conditions became threatened by Tekapō’s development, so the district council introduced an ordinance to curb the impact of the town’s lighting. It was a remarkably far-sighted move which set the scene for today’s booming astro-tourism industry. 

“It had incredible repercussions,” says local tourism entrepreneur Graeme Murray, who founded pioneering sky-gazing venture Earth and Sky in 2004. 

“Later, the whole world looked at little Tekapō and said: ‘How did you do that? because by then pretty much everyone else had left it too late; their night sky was gone.”

That immaculate firmament was recognised in 2012, when a 4,300km slice of the Mackenzie Country and Aoraki Mt Cook National Park was designated an international dark sky reserve – the first in the world with gold-star status. 

For tourism operators in Tekapō, the endorsement by the International Dark Sky Association has been a massive boon. Stargazing is now among the main drivers for Japanese visiting New Zealand.  

As fifty percent of the world’s population has lost contact with the stars, overseas visitors to Mt John can be overwhelmed by the sight of the blazing heavens.

Our guides led us by torchlight to the summit where a handful of observatory domes emerged from packed snow. 

There are five telescopes at Mt John, the largest of which is the 1.8m diameter, Japanese-built MOA scope, tasked with hunting out dark matter and extra-solar planets. Using a technique known as micro-lensing, which relies on the gravitational bending of light, astronomers have discovered a handful of previously unknown planets with MOA, including an icy ‘super Earth’ near the centre of the Milky Way. 

There were sightings of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, which, when discovered by Galileo Galilei became the first objects found to orbit another planet. We had views of the ‘Jewel Box,’ one of the youngest star clusters at a mere 14 million years. We saw the Magellanic Clouds in all their glory.

The highlight was nothing more exotic than a view through an immensely powerful telescope of Saturn. It’s what everyone expects a planet to look like: a pale orb in its wreath of dusty ice, floating in the blackness of space.

We learn that Saturn’s famous rings are an unlikely 10 metres thick, which, relatively speaking, is paper-thin. We were only able to see them across the vastness of the galaxy because of angles and reflection. And, of course Tekapō’s stunning clear skies.


Story by Matt Philp

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