We join the Earth and Sky trip to the Mount John Observatory.
Lake Tekapo and the surrounding area has a reputation for wonderful night skies. It is high, around seven hundred and forty metres. It is also far fom any urban centres so there is little air pollution or thermal turbulence. Most important of all it has minimal light pollution. The whole MacKenzie area has been designated a Dark Sky Heritage site. There are strict regulations on public and domestic lighting across he whole region. I had booked a night-time trip up to the Observatory months in advance. It’s the same place we’d visited a few days before with less scientific curiosity for coffee.
Tuesday night was cloudy. We went to the Earth and Sky office in Tekapo. They do give you the option on cloudy nights of going up to look round some of the larger instruments and other research facilities. But we wanted stars. The real stars and nothing but the stars. The lady on duty was very helpful but said it was even more likely to be cloudy on Wednesday. I’d booked us in with a day to spare for exactly this eventuality. We stuck to our guns. We postponed. Wednesday would be the Last Chance Saloon.
By evening on Wednesday the sky was clear with some cloud spilling in from the west which made seeing conditions slightly iffy. We got into our Antarctic gear. We’d been advised of very cold conditions on the mountain at night.
Wednesday evening. We turned up at the office early. We made a final commitment and signed up for the eleven o’clock session. There is one at twelve too. We were issued with a keyring type LED dark light. It is solar powered. So you could charge it while using it, as long as you don’t use it at night, lol. We were also issued with large quilted insulation coats. They take no risk on claims for frostbite or hypothermia.There were around twenty others there plus a large party of Japanese. In total two busloads of starry-eyed tourists. With everyone wearing the bulky jackets the bus had the feeling of our flight to New Zealand where space was at a premium.
We set off. It is a fifteen minute journey. There is an introductory talk by a recorded lady mainly about weather conditions and how to preserve night vision. Emphasis is placed on the need to keep all light down to a minimum, no flash photos etc. When that’s finished we are treated to several songs. One by a local lady, Becky Murray. She sings for the Tekapo Starlight Reserve Initiative among other work. Look out for the name. You heard it here first. ‘Rocket Man’ accompanies us as we head up towards Mount John. The driver turns the headlights off and drives up the dark, windy road on parking lights. It’s a bit warm with all our thermal gear on but through the window I can see plenty of stars. Looking good. Fingers crossed.
We troop or rather stumble out of the bus like a group of shortsighted bears. There are faintly luminous guidelines on the paths across the observatory which are useful. It is now about eleven o’clock. It is late twilight, nearly dark. There are still a few bits of cloud around but a lot less than there were. The stars are already stunning. There are vast numbers of them and the Milky Way near the Cross glows brightly.
We are given an introductory talk by a youthful and enthusiastic guide. He uses a laser pointer towards the main stars and constellations to great effect. He comments on the upside down orientation of the northern constellations for the benefits of us hyperboreans. he describes the ‘Saucepan’ in Orion, guess which bit. Canis Major he says is lying on his back waiting for his tummy to be tickled. We find ourselves in competition with the Japanese group who have their own guide in their own language which provides an interesting counterpoint.
Then we are let loose on several telescopes around the site. There are a couple of nine inch Schmidts and, highlight of the show, a sixteen inch reflector housed in its own dome. We look at the Jewelbox, kappa Crucis. It is delightful. Strong orange, red, yellow and blue colours are evident among the component stars. We look at eta Carinae and its associated nebulosity. This is striking in the high contrast field of the Schmidt. The confident and informative commentary from several guides continues as we look. Questions are asked. the party is under way. The only drawback is the size of the groups, which at first means we are queueing for a look. Afterwards we pace ourselves a bit more cannily and move adroitly between instruments.
The sky is now quite dark. The sight is just amazing. An overused word I always think, particularly after the Olympics. But not tonight. It’s about the only word that will do for this awesome spectacle. It is without doubt, the best view of the sky I’ve ever had.
I chat to a couple from Auckland who are quite keen amateurs with their own small telescope. They too have never seen the Southern constellations like this. A bearded gentleman with a red lantern which lends him a strong resemblance to Santa Claus approaches us. He is carrying a tray of mugs of cocoa. We gratefully grab one. There is a slight but chilly wind. We re now glad of our standard issue star-trooper coats. The atmosphere on top of the mountain is very sociable, relaxed and light hearted.
We look at several open clusters. I hadn’t heard of the Wishing Well cluster in Carina (NGC 3532), but there it is. We see the Sculptor galaxy (NGC 253). I thought the telescope was aimed at Cetus, then realised the object was named on the go-to display on the drive. Close but no cigar. This was a super view. The galaxy, sometimes called the ‘Silver Coin’, is nearly edge on. I could just make out a central nucleus and a hint of arms. The whole object seemed to me to have a reddish hue.
Several meteors, probably Geminids, put in an appearance to add a little more variety. Each one is greeted by a unison ‘Ooh!’ from the section of the group looking the right way at the right time. The guides take the opportunity to explain why ‘shooting star’ is a misnomer.
We looked at Jupiter in both the nine and sixteen inch instruments. Detail in the bands could be seen. It was slightly disappointing n the larger scope as the planet was by now quite low in the nothern(!) sky and some atmospheric shimmer was evident, also, since we were in a queue I just didn’t have time for my eye to adjust to the bright disk.
The highlight of the night for me was the view of the Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The clouds themselves were a wonderful sight. The LMC shone in through the slit in the dome of the telescope. The nebula when I had focussed it with the handset was just fantastic. The definition of the glowing filaments was incredibly fine. The dark obscuring clouds looked velvety. The whole had a powerful 3-D effect. I felt I could reach out and touch it. Now I know what I want for Christmas. Yes, and a mountain location in New Zealand to put it on. The globular 47 Tucanae was mentioned as a possible target for he big telescope. Either I missed it or they didn’t get round to it. Either way it was a bit of a disappointment. However, overall the tour was excellent.
We are rounded up for a group photo against the stars. We have to hold the pose for around ten seconds to allow the starlight to register. There is some exposure adjustments with red lights and then we say a prolonged cheeeeeeese. The photo captures the night sky well, better than our faces (see link at bottom of page). Then off back to the bus. We are joined by the parallel Japanese group. A head count reminiscent of school trips to ensure that no one spends a night on the bare mountain, though personally I’d happily volunteer.
Back down the road. A slightly subdued and tired group. People are dropped of at various backpackeries. Eventually we are dropped off at the office. We deposit our big jackets in exchange for a star chart cum publicity sheet for Earth and Sky trips, and we get to keep our dark lights as a souvenir cum publicity device for Earth and Sky trips.
When we get back we celebrate with cocoa and biscuits. Oh, we know how to party, I can tell you. I cannot resist the opportunity offered by the tremendous sky. I take myself outside to identify some of the fainter constellations I haven’t yet got to grips with down here. Antlia, Pyxis, Horologium. Norma as a constellation is virtually non-exisitent. It is between Ara and Lupus and as I look for it is low in the South. But the Milky Way here glows brightly in the clear air all the way to the horizon. With binoculars there are many asterisms and clusters. It’s a very rich region of the sky.
When I eventually go inside it is around three am. Leo is up, an inverted question mark. Crater and Corvus, upside down of course, are rising in the east. The Spring constellations. Correction. The autumn constellations. Boy, what a night!
If you have any interest in the night sky then as soon as you get the chance, make your way to Lake Tekapo.