We run public stargazing sessions from an amazing dark sky location between Martinborough and Carterton in Wairarapa and we thought it would be good to cover what we do on our stargazing sessions. This part of New Zealand is fantastic for stargazing because it has good weather, is dark and is relatively close to Wellington. Proximity to large population centres comes with the challenge of light pollution and our site is far enough from Wellington to not be impacted by this. The site is elevated and gives unimpeded views of the sky from all directions, being on a hill also protects from fog.
Our stargazing sessions are 90mins in length which we’ve found to be a good length of time to get a great view of the universe and to also not get too cold. It’s important to us to explain what our visitors are looking at so we talk about the night sky as a whole and discuss how the sky changes throughout the night and how to find your way around the stars. The main thing we do on our stargazing sessions is bring the universe to our visitors through our descriptions and through our telescopes.
We point out the bright stars and the common constellations that are visible and talk about how you can navigate your way around the sky using the prominent stars and easy to spot groupings of stars. The constellations are a useful way of finding your way around the sky and humans have been interested in making patterns in the night sky for thousands of years. Our stargazing sessions are culturally safe, we don’t culturally appropriate stories about the night sky and pass them off as our own, we only pass on cultural knowledge that we have express permission to tell and we will acknowledge who gave us permission. Our preference is to have the cultures that own the stories to tell them.
Our telescopes are large 16″ (405mm) reflecting telescopes. A telescope this big can collect 4 times as much light as a 200mm sized telescope. These are the biggest telescopes for public viewing in the lower north island and significantly more powerful than what other stargazing operators use in the region. Because of this they are big, standing around 2m tall, so we occasionally need to use steps to view objects that are straight up in the sky. The benefit of the having such powerful telescopes far outweighs the inconvenience of having to use steps. Telescopes of this size not only collect more light, which means you can see far fainter objects, they also show more detail. This is fantastic for public stargazing as this gives the opportunity for our visitors to see objects in the night sky that they would never get the chance to see.
We also use high quality eyepieces. Where most stargazing operators will use cheap eyepieces we want to give our visitors the best possible experience possible so we use Televue Ethos eyepieces. The eyepiece is the thing you look through in a telescope and it can often be like looking down a tube. The Ethos range of eyepieces was designed to not give the tube effect and be as similar to looking at the night sky with your own eyes as much as possible. They certainly live up to their design ambition by giving unrivalled views – which is why we bought them. Because they have such a wide apparent field of view they give the effect of being surrounded by the object you’re looking at – rather than looking like being at the end of a long tube. This means that objects appear really big in the eyepiece view without having to over do the magnification.
Our telescopes are not automatic. We think that is really important for stargazing tour guides to actually know what they are talking about and know the night sky. For that reason we will never use goto telescopes for our stargazing as both of us (and anyone we will ever employ) know the sky well and can easily move the telescopes to find objects. We also think it is important to talk about what our visitors are looking at and discuss how the objects are formed and how astronomers know about them.
A Typical Stargazing Session – What we do
What we do on our stargazing sessions will start with a safety brief so everyone knows all of the hazards and we all keep nice and safe. Then we will point out the bright stars and talk a little about them as well as show a few techniques for finding your way around. We like our visitors to actively participate so there’s a few practical techniques we encourage everyone to try out, like finding South and measuring the distance between stars.
We know a lot about navigation and Hari was the driving intellectual force behind the Navigators planetarium movie and we often will talk a little about stellar navigation and give some practical examples. Then we will have a look in the telescopes and depending on the time of the year and the state of the Moon we will select a wide range of objects for our visitors to look at. If it’s a New Moon we normally focus on looking at clusters and galaxies. Our large telescopes mean we can view galaxies millions of light years away.
To get everyone used to seeing things through a telescope, we normally start with a bright cluster of stars like the Jewel Box (NGC4755), Pearl Cluster (NGC3766), Gem Cluster (NGC3293) or the Wishing Well (NGC3532). These are great clusters to start with, they are bright and easy to spot and even look great in a Full Moon. If it is a Full Moon we’ll often put on an OIII filter have a look at Eta Carina Nebula (NGC3372) which is in the vicinity of those clusters mentioned. When there’s no Moon then the nebula is easy to view without the filter. Because this Nebula is so bright it’s a good one to get visitors used to seeing what a nebula looks like – most others are not as bright.
Later in the session we then move into showing a few dimmer objects which can be a bit challenging to see so we work our way through the brighter objects first. For galaxies this might be looking at Centaurus A (NGC5128) then NGC4945 before tackling something a bit trickier like the Topsy Turvy Galaxy (NGC1313). Depending on the time of the year we also have a look at a range of Globular Clusters, the big balls of stars that orbit just outside the confines of the galaxy. These are where a big telescope comes in handy as even when it’s a Full Moon we can still see the Globular Clusters like 47 Tucanae (NGC104) and Omega Centauri (NGC5139) very easily.
As we are looking at these objects we are also answering questions from our visitors and showing whatever objects the conversation leads to. We don’t follow a script or any particular programme so every session is different. What we do on our stargazing sessions really depends on the weather, the conditions, the time of the yeah and what our visitors are interested in.
We love it when visitors bring their astrophotography gear to take pictures of the night sky from the site and we totally encourage it. Both of us are experienced astrophotographers are on hand to help with settings and techniques to get the best shot for the conditions. We will often also set up an adapter we have so that visitors can take photos of the Moon with their own mobile phones. This is usually a very popular activity and can be a great way of having a memory of the stargazing.
So come and join us on a Star Safari!