I am always filled with awe when I look up into a night sky filled with stars.
I live in a city, and my nighttime view is usually illuminated by the lights of civilization rather than by the stars. On those infrequent occasions when I am in a position to stargaze I can usually find a few familiar astral landmarks: The North Star, The Big Dipper, and Orion’s Belt.
So during my travels in New Zealand I was eager to see stars I had never seen before, those of the Southern Hemisphere.
Since I am not an astronomer I was not sure what to look for, other than The Southern Cross. However I had done quite a bit of pre-trip research and I knew I would be able to learn about the New Zealand skies at Carter Observatory in Wellington.
According to the brochure, the Observatory opened in December of 1941 and served as New Zealand’s national observatory, used for astronomical research and education, from 1977 until May of 2010. As the viability of the skies above Wellington made research increasingly difficult, the Observatory eventually became a center for astronomical education.
“Carter Observatory now stands proudly as a key visitor attraction for Wellington, an important educational facility and impressive event venue.”
It is located on the edge of the Wellington Botanic Gardens, and my friend Francine and I reached it by riding the cable car to Lambton Quay at the top of the hill.
Because we had limited free time in Wellington, and I was eager to spend much of it at the Observatory, Francine and I were the first to enter when the doors opened at 10:00 a.m.
Our first few minutes there were delightful as we slowly walked through the Cosmology Gallery, learning a few facts about the galaxy as a whole, and New Zealand’s February 2013 night sky in particular. Unfortunately, our quiet enjoyment was short-lived, as thirty minutes after we arrived a large group of pre-teen school children came into the Observatory for a field trip. They were enthusiastic, noisy, and prone to running, which lessened our enjoyment of the exhibits (especially those with audio presentations, which we then could not hear at all).
and the Pelorus Trust Planetarium, where we took a “45-minute journey through space followed by a live presentation interpreting New Zealand skies from a uniquely Kiwi perspective.” Guidebooks wisely suggest that visitors allow up to two hours to enjoy the Observatory. Even with the our abbreviated visit due to the schoolchildren, we spent that amount of time and probably could have stayed longer if it had not been so crowded and noisy.
With the exception of the Cooke Telescope, which is in an upper room that requires climbing 12 stairs, Carter Observatory is wheelchair-accessible.
Their website includes a page with very helpful information regarding accessibility.
On a Personal Note: A few days prior we stayed at a campground on the outskirts of Napier, far from the lights of that city. Late one night I stepped outside to look at the sky and nearly wept with joy; I have never, ever seen so many stars! Unfortunately, my little point-and-shoot camera – and my personal photographic skills – could not adequately capture this sight, so it will have to remain an amazing memory of New Zealand.