Until the 1970s astronomy in New Zealand remained very much an amateur pursuit, whereby optical observations of the sky were made with relatively small telescopes. Twentieth-century astronomy required equipment and facilities that were beyond the purse of the New Zealand government. This meant that the country played no direct part in the extraordinary advances in astronomical research that characterised that century, such as the discovery that the universe is expanding, or that stars have definite lifespans. New Zealand did not venture into the field of radio-astronomy after the Second World War, unlike its neighbour Australia, which rapidly built up an international reputation with the Parkes radio telescope and later the Australia telescope (an array of eight antennae).
Gifford Memorial Observatory
Charles Gifford, a mathematics teacher at Wellington College and gifted amateur astronomer, established a school observatory on the Wellington town belt between the college and Government House. It fell into disrepair in the 1970s. Some 20 years later a few enthusiasts set about restoring the facility and its original 130-millimetre Zeiss refractor telescope. The Gifford Memorial Observatory was reopened in 2000 for the use of all young people in the Wellington region.
Astronomers and their theories
In the first years of the 20th century, Professor Alexander Bickerton of Canterbury University College, Christchurch, advanced his partial impact theory of star collision to explain the origin of variable stars (stars that vary in brightness). Although there was no evidence to support his theory, Bickerton developed it in an attempt to explain the origin of the solar system.
Charles Gifford, mathematics teacher at Wellington College, was more successful with his theory of the origin of craters on the moon. In the 1920s and 1930s he contested the view that they were volcanic in origin and proposed they were formed by the impact of meteors. It was not until the 1970s, when space missions reached the moon, that Gifford’s theory was proved to be correct.
Astronomical societies in New Zealand
It has been estimated that New Zealand has more amateur astronomical societies per head of population than any other country. In 2004, 24 regional societies, spread from Whangārei to Invercargill, were in operation. A number of them ran their own observatories.
The Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand was founded in 1920, and formed a nationwide umbrella organisation to which the regional societies are affiliated. It includes both amateur and professional members. The society contains a number of sections for different interest groups, including such areas as auroras, variable stars and comets. The society publishes the quarterly journal Southern Stars and hosts a website.
The Carter Observatory in Wellington was built in 1941. It houses a 23-centimetre refractor and a 41-centimetre reflector telescope. A planetarium was built beside the observatory in 1992 to strengthen its role as a regional resource for astronomy education. It became the National Observatory of New Zealand in 1977, but has never been able to fulfil the role of a major research observatory.
The Auckland Observatory on One Tree Hill opened in 1967 and has a 50-centimetre Zeiss Cassegrain reflector telescope. This has been used for photometry of variable stars. The observatory is part of the Auckland Stardome, which features a Zeiss Planetarium, completed in 1997.
The doyen of amateur observers was Nelson resident and retired shopkeeper Albert Jones. Born in 1920, Jones was a prolific observer of variable stars. Using a telescope he built in 1948, he amassed over half a million visual observations noted for their reliability and precision. Jones contributed to a number of scientific projects on variable stars, including an observational programme using the Hubble space telescope. He discovered a comet in 1946 and another 54 years later. His greatest discovery was in February 1987, when he co-discovered the famous supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the brightest explosion of a dying star to be seen with the naked eye since the 17th century.