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Astronomy – overview

by  Maggy Wassilieff

Lieutenant James Cook studied the transit of Venus on the voyage which eventually led him to New Zealand. In the new colony, studying stars, planets and comets was the pursuit of many an enthusiastic amateur – a few made significant discoveries. Today, the country has more astronomy clubs per head of population than anywhere else in the world.

The first astronomers

Māori and astronomy

The full extent of early Māori astronomical knowledge is not known. It is likely that the Polynesians who journeyed to New Zealand navigated by the stars, but much of that knowledge disappeared when Europeans settled the Pacific.

The rich mythology of Māori is entwined with astronomical knowledge. They recognised several star patterns, as well as the brighter planets. They knew the yearly star cycle and related this to seasonal activities such as the planting and harvesting of crops. Matariki, or the Māori New Year, commences when the star cluster Pleiades is seen to rise just before dawn in late May or early June.

James Cook as astronomer

The first European astronomers in New Zealand were James Cook and Charles Green. Cook was not only captain of the barque Endeavour and leader of an expedition to the south Pacific to make observations of the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun, he was also employed as one of the expedition’s astronomers. After observing the transit from Tahiti on 3 June, Cook sailed south and began mapping the New Zealand coastline. This involved taking many astronomical observations on board ship to determine latitude and longitude. In November 1769, Cook and Green undertook the first astronomical observations on New Zealand soil when they viewed the transit of Mercury from a beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. On departing, Cook named the place Mercury Bay.

On his second (1773–74) and third (1777) expeditions, Cook and his astronomers made extensive astronomical observations for determining latitude and longitude from Dusky Sound in Fiordland and Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Astronomy in the new colony

Applied astronomy was the key to accurate timekeeping in the 19th century. Because all trade to and from New Zealand was by ship, it was crucial that accurate time was kept at each of the main ports so that ships’ captains could set their clocks before they sailed. In 1863 the Wellington provincial government established a small observatory on Wellington Harbour that provided a time service for the nation. Six years later this was superseded by the Colonial Observatory, located in Wellington Botanic Garden. Archdeacon Arthur Stock took up duties as the official observer and in so doing became the nation’s first professional astronomer, albeit in a part-time capacity. He continued as official observer until his retirement in 1887. He was keen to popularise astronomy, and in 1874 wrote a beginners’ guide to astronomy for New Zealand readers.

An amateur tradition

A number of new settlers arrived with a good knowledge of astronomy. Enthused perhaps by the 1874 and 1882 transits of Venus, they began to systematically observe their patch of the southern sky. They were not professional astronomers, but some were accomplished observers and made significant discoveries. Two notable figures were Joseph Ward, a telescope maker who surveyed southern skies for double stars, and John Grigg, discoverer of three comets and a pioneer of astronomical photography.

An enthusiast’s pursuit

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.

Carter Observatory

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.

Auckland 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.

Albert Jones

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.


Astronomy for everyone

In the 1960s and 1970s Television New Zealand ran the popular astronomy programme, The night sky. Hosted by amateur astronomer Peter Read, this series was an important source of information about modern astronomy and space exploration.

Major metropolitan newspapers publish regular columns that detail the prominent features visible in the sky at the time.

Astronomy in schools

For years astronomy was a neglected science in New Zealand schools. It was not until the mid-1990s that it featured in the science curriculum under the heading ‘planet earth and beyond’. Few science teachers had proficiency in the subject, most having received little or no astronomy instruction in their senior schooling or graduate courses, and there were limited resources provided to them. Some of the local astronomical societies filled the gap by offering basic courses for teachers and students. The Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand publishes Galaxy – Te Korurangi, a quarterly magazine for children.

Astronomy in universities

Astronomy as a subject for teaching and research is concentrated at the University of Canterbury. Its department of physics and astronomy has specialists in optical astronomy, with interests mainly in stars. There has also been research into meteoroid dust particles in the solar system (using a meteor radar facility at Birdlings Flat, near Christchurch) and cosmology or astroparticle physics.

Four other universities (Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, Massey and Victoria) have significant teaching and research programmes in astronomy, although each has only one academic staff member in the field.

By 2005 about a dozen professional astronomers worked in New Zealand, mainly in the universities. About 50 New Zealanders were professional astronomers overseas, and many have been or are astronomers of international distinction.

Stonehenge Aotearoa

In 2005 a South Pacific version of Stonehenge was opened near Carterton, in the Wairarapa. Led by astronomer Richard Hall, members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society built a 24-pillar henge especially designed for observation and interpretation of southern night skies. Associated with the henge are two conventional observatories. One houses the 15-centimetre refractor telescope owned by the late Peter Read, and the other, the Matariki observatory, has a 60-centimetre Cassegrain telescope designed for electronic CCD (charge coupled device) photography.

Mt John Observatory

New Zealand was slow to embrace astrophysics – the branch of astronomy that seeks to understand the nature and properties of stars and associated objects in space. It was not until the Mt John Observatory was established that such research was undertaken in New Zealand.


Mt John Observatory is a high-tech research observatory, founded in 1965 as a joint project between the universities of Pennsylvania and Canterbury. It is at Lake Tekapo, in the centre of New Zealand’s South Island – where there is the greatest chance of dark, clear skies.


The first major instruments to be installed were three telescopes for sky photography. They were used in the late 1960s to produce a photographic map of the southern sky, known as the Canterbury sky atlas.

In 1970 and again in 1975, 60-centimetre Cassegrain telescopes were installed. One is used for photometry (the measurement of light intensity), mainly of variable stars (stars that vary in brightness). The other is dedicated to observations of gravitational microlensing.

The McLellan telescope

A large 1-metre Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain telescope was installed at Mt John in 1986. Known as the McLellan telescope, it is used mainly for high-resolution spectroscopy of stars with a Hercules vacuum echelle spectrograph (spectroscopy is the study of the way atoms absorb and emit electromagnetic radiation). The data can be used to measure star velocities, temperatures, pressures, chemical composition, rotation rates and other parameters.

The MOA project

MOA stands for microlensing observations in astrophysics. Microlensing is caused by the bending of light rays by the gravitational field of a massive object (the lens), with the result that the light from a distant star can be amplified in brightness, typically for 3–5 weeks.

The MOA project began at Mt John in 1995, mainly supported by Auckland, Canterbury and Victoria universities in New Zealand and Nagoya University in Japan, for detecting and observing microlensing events. Fifty or so events are discovered annually by astronomers at Mt John. In 2003 MOA researchers discovered a planet orbiting a distant star, the first such occurrence to have been detected with microlensing techniques. The subsequent discovery of a large planet in 2005 by a collaborative group of astronomers, including MOA researchers and two Auckland amateur astronomers, confirmed the value of microlensing for planet hunters.

New Zealand’s largest telescope

A fourth reflecting telescope, constructed in Japan, was installed at Mt John in late 2004. It has a 1.8-metre aperture and a large electronic camera mounted at the prime focus. This telescope, New Zealand’s largest, is used for photometry as part of the MOA project, and is the largest telescope in the world dedicated to microlensing.

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

In 2012, 4,367 square kilometres of the South Island – including Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin – became an international dark sky reserve. Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is the largest such reserve in the world and the first in the southern hemisphere. Its aims are to promote star-gazing and protect astronomical research at the Mt John Observatory. By 2019 Aotea/Great Barrier Island and Rakiura/Stewart Island also had darky sky accrediatation.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Astronomy – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Maggy Wassilieff, i tāngia i te 12 o Hune 2006