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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Carter Observatory

To those interested in the high development of astronomy in New Zealand, there have been two tragic losses. In 1920 a proposal was made by Yale University Observatory to establish a large photographic telescope in Central Otago for the purpose of making photographic zone catalogues of the heavens. Apparently New Zealand was not able to rise adequately to the situation with the necessary aid, and the instrument went instead to South Africa. A few years earlier it had been anticipated that Thomas Cawthron would leave a bequest for the establishment of a solar observatory in Nelson. It appears that the necessary papers had not been signed before Cawthron's death, and instead the present Cawthron Institute came into being.

In 1896 Charles Rooking Carter, a pioneer of some prominence in the Wellington and Wairarapa districts, died, bequeathing a sum of about £2,000 for the establishment of an astronomical observatory in or near the city of Wellington, for the public use and benefit. The Carter Observatory Act, 1938, established a board for the purpose of using this money with the accrued interest to put into effect Carter's wishes. With annual grants from the New Zealand Government and the Wellington City Council, the Carter Observatory thus came into being in 1939, with Murray Geddes as its first director.

Geddes had had high prominence as an amateur astronomer in the fields of sunspots, variable stars, the aurora, meteors, and in the discovery of a comet. Unfortunately he died in 1944 while on active service with the Royal Navy, and was succeeded by I. L. Thomsen. Previous to the commencement of the Carter Observatory, Thomsen had worked in the time-service observatory, then known as the Dominion Observatory.

The work of the Carter Observatory is divided into educational and research activities. Upon the educational side are public lectures and telescope demonstrations, as well as the providing of general information to amateurs and the public as required.

With limited apparatus and staff, the observatory has never been able to develop work comparable to that of large overseas observatories. But work of international value has been done on sunspots, chromospheric flares, eclipses, occultations, and comets. Work is developing on double star measurements and stellar photography. Following on the original work commenced by Geddes, the observatory completed from 1930 to 1958 the first and longest catalogue of visual observations of the aurora australis ever made . This project was completed by valuable aid, in its later stage, from the Air Force Cambridge Research Centre, United States of America.

Although the Carter Observatory is by its origins a local one, and the first professional institution of its kind in the country, it nevertheless has on some occasions to assume a national aspect in the provision of authoritative or accurate information. Astronomical instruction in its fullest aspect is at present not a function of universities in New Zealand, although there has been a growing interest in the physics and mathematical departments. In particular mention must be made of radar observations of meteors undertaken by the physics department of the Canterbury University. Though aimed principally at studies of the ionosphere, these observations are valuable by-products of the subject of meteoric astronomy in the southern hemisphere.

Present-day astronomy is clamouring for more large observatories in the southern hemisphere. While in the past there has always been an imbalance between the two hemispheres, today the situation is scientifically desperate. Large instruments capable of accurately measuring the brightnesses of faint stars, securing spectrograms, and making photographic surveys are now required. By virtue of its situation both in latitude and in longitude, New Zealand can play an important part in astronomical research if a site with suitable atmospheric conditions can be found. It so happens that an American institution is now making such a search. If the quest is successful, a new age will open for New Zealand astronomy.

At the time of writing (1964) an agreement has been reached between the University of Pennsylvania, U.S.A., and the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, for the establishment of an observatory on Mount John at Tekapo, South Island, to be known as the Mount John University Observatory. This site was chosen after intensive tests carried out by F. M. Bateson who has been appointed Astronomer in Charge. By now some instruments are ready for operation and very soon there will be an 18-in.-long focus refractor and a 39-in. reflector established. Such an observatory will be used by astronomers of international standing, and this impact on the science of astronomy in New Zealand may well be expected to be the greatest in its history.

by Ivan Leslie Thomsen, F.R.A.S.(LOND.), Director, Carter Observatory, Wellington.