Wellington greets the New Year Matariki stars and you can too

It’s New Year again in New Zealand and, to celebrate the month of Matariki – the Maori New Year – last night I went to one of the very popular destinations for cruise ship passengers (and other travellers of course) visiting Wellington, New Zealand, the Carter Observatory.

If you’re a traveller in my new city, you too will love seeing the Southern sky and stars usually not seen from the Northern Hemisphere – and the Carter, as New Zealand’s longest-serving national observatory, provides a great local perspective on our place in the solar system. It also tells stories of New Zealand pioneers in the field of astronomy – and it’s not as dry as that may sound!

Make sure you take a virtual tour of the universe in the full-dome, digital planetarium and explore the beginning of time and see the Black Hole in their interactive multimedia astronomy centre.

Set in the beautiful Wellington Botanic Gardens and only 2-mins walk from the top of the historic cable car, this inner city, ‘place for space’, is a perfect setting to be taken to the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, which we celebrate on our flag.

NZ flag

The Maori name gifted to Carters is Te Ara Whanui ki te Rangi – the expansive pathway to the heavens – and telescopic viewing to those very heavens is available, weather permitting.

Māori and Polynesian navigation stories are told along with the scientific one. Each year, Maori and other Kiwi celebrate Matariki. Matariki is the Maori name for the small cluster of stars that can be seen low on New Zealand’s north-eastern horizon just before dawn during the last days of May or in early June. These stars are also known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters.

Traditionally, Matariki was an opportunity to honour the past and plan for the future. Today it has become a time to celebrate the remarkable country we live in, share kai (food), stories and songs as well as enjoying cultural activities so check out all the other activities happening around NZ – Te Papa has a great programme.

The Carter Observatory also applauds the roles of some leading Kiwi astronomers such as our rocket man, Sir William Pickering, who was born and grew up here in Wellington and became a pivotal figure in the American space race. He was a highly respected international scientist. It also tells of Beatrice Tinsley whose research was fundamental to the astronomical understanding of how galaxies evolve with time – what a great woman!

Another place to see the night sky in New Zealand is at Mt. John Observatory, Tekapo. (See more on Mt John in this blog)

Some facts and history

  •  Carter’s name commemorates Charles Rooking Carter, who gifted £2,240 from his estate to the Royal Society of New Zealand to set up an astronomical observatory in Wellington for the benefit of the people of New Zealand.
  • Parliament established the Carter Observatory in 1937 and it opened in 1941.
  • A base for astronomical research in New Zealand Carter began with solar investigations.
  • In the 1970s it expanded to include variable stars, galaxies and asteroids.
  • Carter Observatory became New Zealand’s National Observatory in 1977.

The Carter Observatory curates and maintains three main telescopes.

  1. The Thomas Cooke Telescope, a historic 9 3/4-inch Cooke Refractor will be used for public observing sessions.
  1. The Ruth Crisp Telescope arrived as a donation in the 1960s and is still used for astronomy research.
  1. Carter also operates the nearby Thomas King Observatory. Local astronomers maintain its 12.5 cm (5-inch) telescope, made in 1882 by Grubb in Dublin. This observatory is available for public stargazing sessions.

See more about the Carter and stargazing in the capital here

Star gazing in the capital

Stars out again in Wellington

'you can't beat Wellington on a good day' TRUE

(tks Tourism NZ for this – it will be on my list of to-do things next time I’m in NZs wonderful capital!))

26 Mar 2010

Stars and star-gazers are out again in Wellington, New Zealand, as the Carter Observatory readies to reopen tomorrow (27.03.10) after a major two-year renovation.

The revamped observatory has a distinctly Kiwi flavour that combines scientific and Māori astronomy, with special focus on the importance of the stars to traditional Māori navigation

Heralded as a world-class facility and a must-see visitor destination, the white-domed observatory is an iconic form that sits at the top of the Botanic Garden – overlooking central Wellington and only two minutes walk from the capital city’s famous cable car.

Virtual space tour
Carter Observatory’s brand new nine-metre planetarium has a full dome digital theatre offering a virtual tour into space. In this hands-on multimedia space visitors control their own space experience starting with the beginning of time.

A simulated black hole experience will be another major draw-card. This exhibit begins with a digital black hole display that takes a trip through the “Big Bang” theory on the beginning of the universe. Visitors are ushered through a simulated “black hole” experience – a tunnel complete with comets and meteorites that explains the fragility of the solar system.

The black hole exhibit uses a range of interpretive media such as graphics and digital animation to bring space to life and create a fun interactive experience.

Kiwi astronomers
The observatory also applauds the roles of leading Kiwi astronomers Sir William Pickering and Beatrice Tinsley.

Beatrice Tinsley’s research was fundamental to the astronomical understanding of how galaxies evolve with time.

Sir William Pickering, who was born and grew up in Wellington, became a pivotal figure in the American space race and a highly respected scientist in his time.

Carter Observatory director Sarah Rusholme says the changes are amazing.

“The aim of the revamp was to make it a must-see visitor destination and open up the interior to create flexible exhibition spaces. It’ll make a trip up on the Cable Car even more of a memorable experience,” Rusholme said.

History of the stars
Carter Observatory is named after Charles Rooking Carter, an English politician and philanthropist who moved to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital in 1850.

When Carter died in 1896, he left a portion of his estate for the establishment of an astronomical observatory in Wellington – although that didn’t happen until 1941.

The observatory started life as a base for astronomical research in New Zealand but has also developed into an important educational facility.

Carter Observatory has two main telescopes – the Thomas Cooke telescope, which has been there for more than a century, and the Ruth Crisp telescope, donated by Kiwi writer and philanthropist Ruth Crisp.

Māori astronomy
Tātai Arorangi or Māori astronomy is an important part of Māori culture and history.

Tohunga Māori (wise men and women) spent a lot of time studying the stars and their movements to determine seasonal cycles, the passing of time and directions.

The appearance of Matariki (also known as Pleiades, Seven Sisters or Messier 45) – a distinctive star cluster in the constellation of Taurus – marks the beginning of Matariki or the Māori new year. The seven stars are believed to be Matariki and her six daughters. The end of the year is identified with the disappearance of Matariki.

Māori ancestors also navigated their waka (canoes) by the stars. This form of celestial navigation was used for deep sea voyages and the placement of the sun, moon and stars was a key reference as they explored new horizons.

More information

Matariki – Māori new year celebration

Video: Matariki – Māori New Year

southern skies: a starlight national park in the sky?



The Mackenzie Country is one of the special places left where you can still see the night sky and its dazzling starlight and, from the top of Mt. John, I have a 360º view of the big skies of the McKenzie Basin and its carved-by-ancient-glaciers landscape.

Fed by the glacial waters of New Zealands Southern Alps, below me is the 30-kilometre long Lake Tekapo with its remarkable turquoise colour – caused by the refraction of light through the finely ground rock particles of the melt waters.

Lake Tekapo in winter (photo from Earth & Sky)
Lake Tekapo in winter (photo from Earth & Sky)

Through-out the world stars are disappearing under the haze of light pollution and locally, a group called the Starlight Reserve project are pushing to preserve this view and gain UNESCO world heritage status for a ‘National Park’ in the Mackenzie Country sky.

Graeme Murray of Earth and Sky tells me “The local council are leading New Zealand and many parts of the world and have special ordinances about the use of lighting and light pollution.  All Lake Tekapo lights must be beamed downwards and no spillage is allowed.  It recognised the dark sky as a valuable resource to protect and value and to also encourage the responsible use of energy.”

At the international convention on the Dark Sky in Spain last year, Starlight’s proposal received total endorsement and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) nominated Mt. John and the Lake Tekapo area  as the pilot study for the first ever “World Heritage Starlight Reserve”

They are hopeful this protection and status will be formally announced during January – in Paris, during the International Year of Astronomy 2009 that marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical observation through a telescope in 1609. (SEE THE LATEST NEWS RE THIS –  November 2009 here)

Because if its latitude, astro-tourism or stargazing from the summit of Mt. John (a ‘roche moutonnee’ a braided rock mass formed by old glaciers) is considered the best in the country and seduces and captivates locals and tourist alike.

A daytime tour of the observatory tells me something of the latest scientific space research and I view Alpha Centauri, which is not only a daystar but also the earth’s closest star.

McNaughts Comet: Mt John ( photo from Earth & Sky)
McNaughts Comet: Mt John ( photo from Earth & Sky)

Later, I join the Earth and Sky night-tour and with their powerful telescopes explore the wonders of the southern sky.  The sky seems diamond-studded and it seems as if I could reach out and touch the moon or Saturn.

We see clusters of stars, the Orion nebulas, Mars, Jewel-box cluster, the Southern Cross and clouds of glowing gas that are millions of light-years away.  The moons craters are breath taking: add the fascinating rings of Saturn and I’m amazed I’ve never looked skywards until now.

This observatory also has New Zealands largest telescope and the scientists are searching for objects such as extra solar planets and celestial bodies that constitute dark matter and black holes.

Part  of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was filmed in this area which was first populated by Maori during eel and bird hunting expeditions in the summer, and the Mackenzie Basin really only became known to the Pakeha (European) settlers in 1855 when James Mckenzie, a Scottish shepherd, was arrested for sheep stealing in the area.

For more information:




This article was originaly published in the South China Morning Post

Also see: http://matadortrips.com/worlds-best-stargazing-destinations/