A day in the life of an Astronomy guide

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award-winning photographer Alex Conu

I am an Astronomy guide. I live in the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, working for Earth and Sky where we take people on tours of the sky and research telescopes. Because of my somewhat unique job title I often get asked about what I do. So, let me talk you through what happens.

Firstly, I wake up. For someone who is a ‘morning’ person I wake up early for an Astronomy guide. About 12 pm (yes, I do mean pm). We start work at sunset so in summer we will be working until about 4 am, so after getting in enough sleep it I am not out of bed before 12 pm. I describe this as living in a slightly different time zone to the rest of New Zealand.

This will give me the afternoon to do what I would like. Anything at all in the nice sunny (hopefully) afternoon.

In summer I will start work at about 8:45 pm. This is about when well will set up for the evening. Setting up telescopes, checking alignment, getting the location ready for the customers and getting debriefed on the expected weather.

We use several different types of telescopes, but they are all tracking. So, one of the important jobs is to align the telescopes. This involves pointing the telescope at two bright stars and telling it what stars it is pointed at. Along with the date, time and location information the telescopes then know where everything else in the sky is pointed.

We will then have some tour groups on the way to us.

On a clear night, I will give people a sense of scale of our Milky Way Galaxy, teach them how to find south using the stars, show them the planets and constellations all using a super cool laser (it looks just like a lightsaber from Star Wars). Then we will get up close with the stars using telescopes to look at stunning clusters, planets and nebulae.

On a night when it is a bit cloudy, the research telescopes on Mt John will not be observing so I get to show off them instead. The MOA is the largest optical telescope in New Zealand and is my favourite to visit.

An important part of being an Astronomy guide is knowing the sky well. You can find constellations and telescope objects in whatever part of the sky is visible and tell a story about it. You have to work with what the clouds are giving you.

When you spend a lot of time under the sky you see how the Moon and planets move over time and get to know how different regions of the sky are visible in different time of the year. You also notice meteor showers when there are suddenly more meteors (better known as ‘shooting stars’) than normal.

After all the people joining the tours are sent back to their warm hotel beds. Its pack down time. This is normally quicker and once everything is safety packed up it is the Astronomy guides will be heading home (and to sleep) to go to sleep as well.