Wonders of night sky watched in backyard

19:51, Jan 21 2013
Ray Murray
STAR GAZER: Ray Murray with the telescope in his shed observatory in South Invercargill.

Ray Murray's Newfield shed hides an interesting secret - when the roof slides open, a telescope emerges, trained up at the night sky and powerful enough to peer into our solar system and beyond.

Mr Murray built the observatory at his South Invercargill home in three weeks.

It's in a simple shed at the back of his property, next to a big garage housing his extensive tool collection - impressive in its own right.

There are astronomy posters on the walls, a kettle, equipment boxes and action figurines belonging to his grandson, along with some gadgets of Mr Murray's own design.

A real man-cave, its roof slides open to allow the 2m-long telescope to move into position. Linked to a computer with a database of 40,000 celestial co-ordinates, the telescope is whirred into place with the press of a button with motors buzzing into life.

Mr Murray constructed the telescope stand himself.


On permanent loan from another Invercargill astronomer who refuses to sell it to him, the telescope is mounted on a 1.5m deep concrete pier and bolted into place.

Mr Murray bought his first proper telescope in 2000 but has been interested in stargazing since he was a child - he remembers watching the first satellite orbiting the Earth.

"I guess it was about 1957.

"My mother dragged us outside to look at the Sputnik.

"A little light going across the sky. Back then it was a real phenomenon."

He followed the American Mercury and Gemini rocket missions, and later the Apollo moon landings but said a New Zealand television programme was one of his main influences.

The Night Sky, presented by Peter Read, was a fixture on television for 11 years, 1963-74.

Now, Mr Murray likes to pass on his passion to younger people, including his grandson, to become astronomers.

"I try to inspire young people . . . one young guy I used to take out has now completed a degree in astrophysics."

The telescope is powerful enough to view the surface of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn and their larger moons.

If you watch for long enough, you can see Jupiter's moon, Io, go behind the planet and emerge on the other side in its orbit.

As an engineer, Mr Murray designed many of the additional features of the telescope himself and used to run a small cottage business making custom-made parts for telescopes and had customers in the United States.

One of his inventions is a carousel which holds different eye pieces and can rotate around the stand of the telescope to wherever the user is sitting.

He also built a device using a household frying pan which heats the eye pieces, preventing dew from forming during the night.

"Dew is your worst enemy," he said.

He once saw a Martian flare - a rare moment when the sunlight reflects off the surface of Mars.

"It goes off like a camera flash," he said. "It has to be in the exact right position otherwise it doesn't happen."

Only 13 people around the world saw it, he said.

In 1987, he also saw a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The star is still exploding and "putting on a bit of a show", he said, and is called SN 1987A by astronomers.

There is still plenty of stuff out there to see.

"I really want to see Andromeda . . . not because it's anything special but because it is the Milky Way's sister galaxy."

He would also like to fit a camera to the telescope so he can take pictures of the sights of space - all from a shed in Invercargill.

The Southland Times