Q&A: Five decades of star-gazingSave
By Jamie Morton
Auckland's Stardome Observatory is celebrating 50 years of star-gazing. Science reporter Jamie Morton talked with astronomer Dr Grant Christie about what's yet to come.
You joined the Auckland Astronomical Society way back in 1966, a year before Stardome opened. Up until that point in time, how would you have described the astronomy scene in our biggest city?
I was only 14 and had just developed a passion for astronomy and didn't know much about the astronomy scene.
But after a year or so I got to meet many of the major players.
Some were committed to doing scientific studies and while I was keen to look at any objects through telescopes, I was mostly interested in trying to make useful observations.
Some of the active amateur astronomers in Auckland at the time did make real observations, but most just enjoyed exploring the night sky.
One who had made many science observations was Ronald McIntosh who also ran the planetarium at the Auckland Museum.
I had visited the planetarium quite a few times after it was installed in 1959.
John Orr had a nice observatory at his home in Mt Albert - the society still has his telescope - and Harry Williams had a large telescope in Mt Eden he had constructed himself.
Quite a few people made their own telescopes at that time because big telescopes were usually too expensive to buy.
I made two telescopes under the guidance of Graham Loftus; he was exceptionally generous with his time and expertise, helping many other others beside me.
Probably the best thing about the astronomy scene here, which is still true today, is that there is only one astronomical society in Auckland and its membership is very diverse and inclusive.
The society itself began in a ramshackle shed in Symonds St, I believe?
The old "shed" on the east side of Symonds St was the first "Auckland Observatory".
It was close to where the School of Architecture now stands.
The society opened it one night a week for public viewing but they realised it was not satisfactory, in fact it was an embarrassment for the city.
This is what led Professor Percy Burbidge, while president of the Astronomical Society, to start promoting the idea a new, modern observatory for Auckland.
That also must have been a pretty interesting time to be getting into astronomy, with the US and Soviet Russia locked in the space race. Was it this that got you interested in astronomy, or did your curiosity go back further?
I can't remember not being very interested in astronomy and everything to do with space.
As a youngster aged five I do remember my grandmother taking me outside one night to see it we could spot Sputnik but sadly we didn't see it.
I longed to get a chance to look through a real telescope.
By the time I was in my early teenage years, I used my grandfather's binoculars from the First World War to look at the stars.
That was a memorable experience I've never forgotten.
Even as old as they were, they showed many more stars, the moons of Jupiter and craters on the Moon.
I followed all the space race developments, often from the weekly articles by Mr McIntosh in the New Zealand Herald.
I cut everything out but unfortunately I didn't keep those hundreds of cuttings.
With the new observatory came the Carl Zeiss telescope. Can you tell us a little about this and how it changed the face of astronomy in New Zealand?
The new observatory housed the Edith Winstone Blackwell Telescope.
The telescope was made by Zeiss, then based in East Germany, and was at that time the largest telescope in New Zealand, with a 50cm aperture.
The public attendances were huge, keen to see the Moon and planets with their own eyes.
Even located within a big city, the 50cm Zeiss telescope could see fainter stars than other telescopes in the country at that time.
The Auckland Astronomical Society members, now responsible for operating the new observatory, were very keen to see the telescope used for science as well as for regular public viewing.
A number of possible observational programmes were discussed and the active observers mostly concentrated on studying the behaviour of stars known to vary in brightness.
Some stars changed fast - like a nova that suddenly explodes - while many others change in a cyclic way as they slowly pulsate.
Also of great interest were pairs of stars orbiting each other that caused their light to increase and decrease as first one, then the other, was eclipsed by its companion.
Sometimes these stars could interact with each other causing sudden outbursts but little was known about the details of their lives in the 1960s.
The observatory has published hundreds of scientific papers on variable stars, many in collaboration with professional astronomers around the world.
In terms of New Zealand astronomy, what Kiwi-led discoveries and developments over the last couple of decades would stand out as highlights for you?