Concerns for Mt John Observatory's future

STARGAZING: The area around the Mt John Observatory is protected as a 'dark sky reserve'.
STARGAZING: The area around the Mt John Observatory is protected as a 'dark sky reserve'.

Mt John is New Zealand's only professional research observatory. But now it is facing serious questions about its future, writes HUGH CONLY .

The University of Canterbury's Mt John Observatory at Tekapo, to some people, is an odd contradiction.

How can such small, ordinary looking buildings in the Mackenzie Country give access to something as extraordinary as the universe - a world of staggering size and wonder?

By day, the observatory can be seen from Tekapo as a cluster of domes perched like upturned pudding basins on a hill overlooking the town.

By night, under the clear skies the area is famous for, the observatory comes alive with strange noises and eerie activity. Cars drive up the hill with dipped lights. Domes rattle and clank as the telescopes rotate. Darkness is everywhere. Visitors find their way around using tiny torches casting red beams.

Those privileged to peer through the telescopes are in for an awesome experience. One view may take them up close to Saturn in all its splendour, glowing with its rings in the dark emptiness. Other views may reveal the complex beauty of the Crab Nebula, or stars in a galaxy so far away that the light was emitted before humans evolved.

For those of us caught up in our everyday lives on Earth, it's all a reminder of a mind-boggling world out there, an infinite cosmos of stars, planets, black holes and - who knows? - maybe even intelligent life.

Mt John has been engaged in the quest for other planets for several years, and especially for those with conditions that make them habitable, where life could thrive.

Curiously, it was only 19 years ago that the first planet was found outside our solar system. That breakthrough has led to hundreds more, with the latest total at 1782. Each discovery fuels hopes that intelligent life will eventually be found in some distant star or galaxy.

Observers at Mt John using a 1.8m MOA telescope, the biggest in New Zealand, have won international recognition by contributing to many of the new discoveries.

Astronomers from Canterbury, Auckland and Massey universities, together with others from Nagoya University in Japan, are working on the project. Their efforts make it possible that Kiwi astronomers could be involved if or when the astonishing news is announced that extraterrestrial life has been found.

But in the meantime, work continues on less spectacular but still cutting-edge research. There are projects measuring wind speed and air temperature 30km above the ground, studies of small dark objects that make up the "missing mass" of our galaxy, and the monitoring of asteroids that could hit Earth. A close watch is being kept on one heading our way in 2029. It all adds to human knowledge, quietly unlocking the secrets of the universe, with so much more to be learned.

But now that work may be under threat. The university has been scrambling to cope with the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes. Its cost-saving measures as it struggles to rebuild have taken a toll on the observatory which, perhaps ironically, hardly felt the earthquakes.

Staff who leave are not being replaced. The numbers of astronomers and technical staff have dwindled as people retire. Only one academic astronomer is at present making major use of Mt John. For most of Mt John's history there have been at least three.

John Hearnshaw started star gazing at the university in 1976 and retired two months ago as professor of astronomy. During his career he produced seven books and published 273 papers or articles on astronomy. Now he has a more down-to-earth focus - and he doesn't mince his words about the predicament the observatory is facing.

"It's absolutely disastrous," he says. "There used to be four on-site technical staff at Mt John, now there are only 2.5. After October there will be only one. You can't run an observatory with only one technical staff member. It's a very sad situation.

"By the end of next year, Mt John could be history if nothing is done."

Hearnshaw's beef is not with the university. He fully understands that it is facing financial problems. But he is passionate about the observatory to which he has devoted his career.

He suggests much more could be done to maximise the observatory's promotional potential, perhaps starting by charging a small toll for tourists on the access road.

That could be a big revenue earner. Mt John is easily the university's best known and most visited research facility. Many people see it as the jewel in the crown of the university's research centres, with a huge reputation for its work around the world. Each year, it attracts 250,000 visitors, many from China and Japan keen to see the clear night sky no longer visible in their countries.

So does the university have a long-term plan for Mt John? And how rundown will it allow the staffing levels to become? When asked for comment, the university says it's "continuing to run the observatory". It points out that it is the only institution in New Zealand that owns and manages an observatory for research in astronomy.

"The university plans to retain Mt John for astronomy purposes. It is looking at options for future developments. The university will maintain appropriate technical staffing for the needs at Mt John," it says.

The observatory's director, associate Professor Karen Pollard, says the university and the stakeholders, the department of physics and astronomy in particular, are looking at ways to allow the observatory to continue to operate.

"It is true that academic staff and technical staff numbers have declined, but this is all over the university, not just the observatory."

The past five years have been productive, particularly from her Music of the Stars research that was Marsden-funded from 2009 to 2013, she says. Part-time staff members are doing as much research as fulltime staff members.

Two international projects will be using Mt John over the next few months. One is a team from Williams College in Massachusetts that will observe two occultations of Pluto in July because Mt John is one of the only places on Earth this can be seen from. The other involves Mairan Teodora, of Nasa's Goddard Flight Centre, and a Brazilian astronomer to observe the super-massive binary star Eta Carina from next month to August.

"Once again, Mt John is one of the only places on Earth this object can be observed from with the necessary, high-quality instrumentation," Pollard says.

"The Mt John University Observatory essentially operates as a 'de-facto' national facility - as well as international astronomers, we have New Zealand-based astronomers from Auckland University, Massey University, Victoria University and Canterbury using these facilities."


Next year, Mt John will mark its 50th jubilee. Hearnshaw is planning a symposium at Tekapo in May to celebrate the occasion.

It will be a time to look back at the university's association with Mt John since the first telescopes and astronomical cameras were installed in 1965 in a joint venture with the University of Pennsylvania. From 1975, the interest of the United States partners waned and they pulled out after developing an observatory in Chile.

Hearnshaw is proud of the achievements of Mt John and says it will have much to celebrate next year.

However, he has grave concerns about its future.

"Its possible failure represents a major risk for the university, as the long-term reputation of Canterbury as a place that fosters science would receive major damage in the perception of the public and future students.

"We need two new research astronomers and two new technical staff very soon if Mt John is to survive beyond its 50th birthday."


Five telescopes are in regular use at Mt John. There is also a cafe and night tours are run by tourist operators Earth and Sky. MOA Telescope: Opened in 2004, this was built by Japanese astronomers and is dedicated to the MOA project. It is a 1.8m prime focus reflector. McLellan Telescope: Built by the University of Canterbury, installed in 1986, 1m in size. Used for a variety of research, especially spectroscopy of stars using the revolutionary Hercules spectrograph, also designed and built at Canterbury. The telescope is also used for tracking asteroids, including objects that could hit Earth.

Boller & Chivens Telescope: This is a 60cm reflecting telescope, installed in 1975.

Optical Craftsmen Telescope: This is a 60cm fork- mounted reflecting telescope, installed in 1970. It has been upgraded and commissioned for fully robotic use.

Earth and Sky Telescope: A 40cm telescope owned by Earth and Sky Ltd and used for tourism.

The Press