The Tauranga Observatory

I’ve often wondered about the universe. Who hasn’t? I’ve downloaded satellite tracking apps and watched from a garden hammock on a summer night as the stars pass overhead. There’s so many questions.  

Why does Pluto form dunes when there is essentially no wind? Are we alone? How big is the universe? Why did Mars dry out?

I’ve just learned that all the planets in our own  solar system are now on the same side of the solar system, which means they are all currently visible in the night sky.

We’re talking the rings of Saturn and the four main moons of Jupiter as well as the cloud belts.

Venus and Mars are very bright in the sky, Venus in the early evening in the Western sky and Mars later in the evening in the Eastern sky.

Mercury takes 88 days to orbit the Sun, so it will be back on the other side within weeks, but the planets further out take much longer. Jupiter and Saturn will be on the same side for years.

Jupiter takes just under 12 years to orbit the Sun, and Saturn takes about 29-and-a-half years, so they move a lot slower.

It’s interesting to me that we often don’t think about the fact that six months from now, we will be on the other side of the Sun from where we are now, almost 300 million km away.

We’re busy being caught up with life’s dilemmas, sports, coffee and a myriad of other things.

Meanwhile, we’re hurtling through space.

If there’s no cloud, the Moon should be visible on July 24, which is perfect because that’s when the Tauranga Astronomical Society will be holding its next meeting.

The club has an observatory and clubrooms at Fergusson Park, and meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. I decided to go check it out.

Stuart Murray, Les Smith, Robert Bays and Archer Bays, age 10, met me at the clubrooms.

“Over the last few decades, science and astronomy have grown astronomically,” says Stuart.

“Each fortnight there’s something new happening.

“The technology is advancing and allowing us to see further and do things. It’s changing as new ideas and philosophies creep in.”

“Technology is even helping astronomers re-evaluate old data,” says Robert.  

Robert and Archer joined the club about a year ago.

“Archer got really interested and got a telescope,” says Robert. “We then found the Tauranga Observatory and ever since it’s been a lot of fun.

“We go to every meeting.”

Archer has an eight-inch Dobsonian telescope at home, and attends Greenpark School.

“I like coming here because it documents space and I find the subject very interesting,” says Archer, who takes his own telescope out onto the deck at home.

“I’ve seen Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and some  star clusters.”

“I love the documentaries we show at the club,” says Robert, “and also the viewing, and showing people Jupiter and the planets. Seeing them amazed when they see it for the first time is enjoyable.”

Some of the telescopes at the observatory are very portable, and can track the planets, making them easy to use.

Upstairs at the observatory is the pride and joy of the club - a 14-inch Meade LX200-ACF telescope.

With the push of a button, the roof slides back on the observatory and the night sky becomes visible.

There is a Lundt Solar 60 telescope for viewing the Sun, while the observatory also houses a 10-inch Dobsonian, an eight-inch Meade LX10 SCT and a couple of other smaller telescopes.

The Lundt Solar telescope is the only telescope that can be used for viewing sun spots and solar explosions on the sun.

The club nights are sometimes packed out with people, especially with notable New Zealand guest speakers, as the club keeps the topics relevant and current. “We initially started with DVDs and programmes going back to Apollo missions,” says Stuart. “Now we try and keep the programme as topical as we can.

“Sometimes we go back and look at what astronomers worked out. There was a key point in astronomy history in 1610, when Galileo discovered that Jupiter had four revolving moons.

“Up until then it was believed that everything went around the earth.

“This was a significant shift in outlook.”

This was also the period when telescopes were  first introduced.

Les took up an interest in astronomy on retiring, about 17 years ago.

He lives nearby and has taken school groups through the observatory as well as taking telescopes out to visit children in kindergartens.

“It’s very interesting as there’s so much happening,” says Les. “With the new telescopes you can look at space from different frequencies.”

The club members are looking forward to the solar eclipse taking place on the morning of July 28.

Glancing above I marvel. While we’ve been talking, our small Earth has raced through space, a continual source of mysteries waiting to be discovered.

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