Sunday, March 7, 2010

Stephen's Birthday - A trip up to Tekapo

Last weekend was Stephens birthday. He's been working really hard at school for the last month and a half, so I wanted to do something that would take his mind out of work mode for at least a couple of hours. 3 hours southwest of Christchurch, towards the interior of the island is Lake Tekapo. A huge, cool blue-green glacial fed lake nestled into the mountains at one end and emptying into a massive wide valley at the other. The township of Lake Tekapo is situated at this end. There are some rounded hills around the town, marking the boundary between steep mountain crags and flat tussocky plains. It is on one of these rounded mounds that the Mount John Observatory sits.

Mount John Observatory is a research-based observatory run as a joint venture between several Universities, of which, Canterbury is one. I was advised by one of my co-workers at Gateway, that if we approached the care taker of the observatory we might stay up in the research quarters situated on top of the mountain. So on Saturday, after waking to a cloudy sky and picking up things for lunch and dinner at the Lyttleton market, we headed off down the road. Fingers crossed that it might be clear enough to see a few stars that night.

We pulled up to the top of Mount Johns around 5pm and wandered down to the accommodation facilities just below the telescopes. We found our way in and were guided to where Alan and his wife, Pam, were fixing one of the telescopes. After a brief tour of the living quarters and our room (all blinds must be shut before sun down to ensure no light escapes at night), Alan took us around the station to show us the telescopes and talk about the research that is currently going on there. He and his wife are part of an ongoing project tracking N.E.O. (near earth objects - like asteroids) to help understand their orbits and potential threats to earth. A Japanese student was there working on the M.O.A. (microlensing observations in astrophysics) telescope looking at variations in starlight indicating the possible presence of a planet in orbit. He then left us to make some dinner and nap before the sun set at 9pm.

After a dinner of fresh corn on the cob and a good nap, Alan called us up to the 60cm telescope just up the hill. We grabbed our flashlight and headed up to meet him. The sky was fading to black with a thin rim of orange outlining the mountains and one star after another was poking its face through the blanket of night to make its presence known. We stumbled up the last little knoll and met Alan. The first thing he showed us was the Jewel Box nebula, a cluster of stars and gas tucked into the Milky Way (the picture is of the Southern Cross, see if you can find it - try using the two pointer stars). Then it was the Eta Carinea cluster, the 47 tucanae nebula, Mars, the Orion nebula, Saturn with its rings, star after star filled the tiny eye piece and filled our imaginations with such wonders. The whole time, Alan told stories about each one and wove throughout it how he had developed such a love and a wisdom about the sky above us. How he had helped survey the Mount Johns site when it was first established and how he had worked for 40 years on a project tracking asteroids. Before we knew it the moon was coming up and it was 11pm. Alan took us back down to the living quarters where Pam was working on gathering data on star emissions. We left them to their discussions and wandered up to the little cafe at the summit where each night, Earth & Sky offer tours for visitors. I got to use a tracking tripod and take some star pictures and we listened to some of the stories offered by the guides. By midnight, things were wrapping up and people were heading back down the hill. We walked back to the house and fell exhausted into bed. An absolutely glorious night of star gazing.

The next morning we said good bye to Alan (Pam was asleep as she had been up til dawn taking measurements) and drove back to Christchurch. This time, with clear skies the whole way. Back in town, Stephen went to school for a couple of hours to work on lesson planing, while I visited Fenella (and her mom and sister and brother-in-law and Briar) at her shop. With the help of Fenella and Briar, I designed and picked out the fabric for my first quilt. A fun one for Kieran. Hopefully, it will be ready for his first birthday next spring.

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