This past weekend I went on a field trip to Lake Tekapo with a Geography course I'm sitting. The course focuses on the various ways we experience place, exploring especially the differening world views of First Nations and Western Science. This weeks trip explored the space of Mountains and Skies up at Lake Tekapo.
Lake Tekapo is about 200km Southwest of Christchurch up in the Southern Alps which run the length of the South Island. It has a permanent population of about 500 people with a large portion of the transient population in holiday home owners. Mount John Observatory sits on the nearby Mount John, and there is steady work being done to try to have UNESCO accept a proposal for a world heritage site that protects the night sky viewing possibilities.
Mount John is the southern most permanent observatory, placed here for its' altitude, latitude, and number of clear nights. Not only do people come from around the world to view the stars of the southern hemisphere here, but the Japanese and New Zealand astronomy communities have worked together to build MOA (microlensing observations in astrophysics), a 1.8m telescope that looks for planets as they cross in front of stars. I believe in its' 13 years of life so far they have found 13 planets the size of Jupiter in far off solar systems. We were lucky enough to join one of their night sky tours. Looking up at the thousands of millions of billions of stars that seem to go on and on forever - and maybe they do. You can learn more about the observatory at http://www.earthandsky.co.nz/