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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Forget seeing the world, see the whole universe from Mt John

By David Morris

High in the hills of New Zealand’s remote Mackenzie Country, in the backblocks of a country that is fairly much the backblocks of this planet, might seem an unlikely place for discovering new planets in the universe.

Mt John Observatory has, however, been an integral part of a world-wide team that has recently discovered the smallest planet in the universe, about 8000 light years away, outside of our own solar system.

You could find out more about that particular story by going to the website of the New Zealand Herald but wouldn’t it be just so much more exciting to get it right from the source, from the astronomers at the observatory itself.

In a remarkable entrepreneurial leap for scientists, the observatory has opened its doors (and telescope window) to visitors for day or night tours.

The observatory is just outside the township of Lake Tekapo in the middle of the Mackenzie Basin, a vast grassy inland plain first discovered by the notorious 19th century sheep rustler James Mackenzie.

This remote location, along with the fact that it’s stuck in the middle of the even more remote South Pacific Ocean, means astronomers can gaze into space unpolluted by urban-generated light.

It’s one of the things that really hits home with visitors – when you look upwards and outwards from a place like this you realise what an incredibly beautiful thing the night sky is . . . and how little we city-dwellers see of it in our every-night lives.

Observatory tours are run by Earth and Sky Tours, operating out of Lake Tekapo township.

The day tour is a unique opportunity to visit a fully functioning scientific observatory where astronomers from the University of Canterbury and Nagoya University in Japan, amongst others, are conducting exciting research.

Learn about the exciting new M.O.A. project which uses the largest telescope in New Zealand to observe over fifty million stars each clear night, searching for dark objects in distant space. It was as part of this project that they came upon that tiny planet circling a small star 8000 light years away.

You’ll also get panoramic views of the Mackenzie Basin - including Mount Cook and the majestic Southern Alps as well as learning about the interesting geological features and history of the area.

The tour lasts an hour and costs $15 for adults, $5 for children.

The night time tour takes you to the observatory high above the town where you explore features of the southern sky. The tour company provides the equipment and the guidance, all you need to take are keen eyes, warm clothes and a desire to see, learn and experience.

Navigating through the Southern Sky using a telescope, binoculars and the naked eye, you will explore amazing sites such as our own Milky Way Galaxy, the Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri - our closest neighbouring star at only 4.3 light years away, and Sirius - the brightest star in our sky.

View and learn about our closest neighbouring galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, which grace our night sky along with constellations such as Orion the Hunter and Scorpius.

You may also have the opportunity to see star clusters like the beautiful Jewel Box, awe inspiring planets, immense clouds of gas and dust, and distant galaxies which test the limits of human imagination.

Tour lasts 2 hours, including 30 min travelling time and costs $68 for adults, $35 for children.

You Can find out more about the Mt Cook region and the Mackenzie Basin at http://new-zealand-travel-guide.com/mtcook.htm.

Declaration of interest: I have no connection whatsoever, commercially or personally, with the Mt John Observatory or Earth and Sky Tours. I just like what they do and wanted to tell you about their gig.

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