They say on a clear day you can see forever. And in New Zealand, that sure is true, especially at night. The southern skies offer some of the most fabulous stargazing opportunities in the world. Many are visible to the human eye, but no trip to New Zealand would be complete without stopping at least one observatory to check out the Southern skies by telescope.
When to Go
Stargazing in New Zealand is a year round activity, providing that the clouds don’t get in the way. Best time to go, though, would be late summer and early autumn when the skies are the clearest. But if you‘re looking for the center of the Milky Way, then go in the winter.
What to See
As well as the Milky Way, the three brightest stars – Sirius, Canopus, and Alpha Centauri – can be seen in the southern skies. Alongside the Southern Cross is the Jewel Box, a collection of different colored stars. But the star attraction must be the great view of two extraordinary galaxies – the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These two cloud-like patches, considered the closest galaxies to our own, are about 170,000 light years away.
Where to Go
Auckland is the entry point for most international travellers, so where better to kick start your New Zealand stargazing experience. The Auckland Observatory and Planetarium (more commonly known as ‘stardome’) is located in Auckland’s One Tree Domain.
The Planetarium, with it’s 360 degree all-sky theater, offers a truly amazing stargazing experience. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like outside, in here the stars are always shining – all 3,500 of them.
Only an hours drive from the capital city of Wellington, Aeoteoroa Stonehenge sits amongst the farmlands and vineyards of the Wairarapa.
A full scale adaptation of England’s Stonehenge, this New Zealand version marks the stars and constellations that guided the Polynesian navigators years ago during their voyages across the Pacific.
Run by the members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society, this is the perfect place to learn both history and astronomy. Visitors are introduced to the art of stargazing while learning how ancient cultures used the stars, moon, and sun navigate the ocean, create calendars, and follow the seasons.
Sitting atop Mount Victoria, surrounded by 26 hectares of spectacular Botanic Gardens and overlooking Wellington, a trip to the Carter Observatory is worth it just for the panoramic view of the city and the harbor. But this observatory also offers a chance to reach for the stars, visually, through an historic 23 centimeter refracting telescope. Weather permitting, of course.
There are astronomy displays, computers, audiovisual presentations, and telescopes to check out. The Planetarium offers a 30 minute show, audio visual presentations, and a short talk by an astronomer.
There are two main telescopes for public observation sessions. During the day, the focus in on solar viewing, searching for flares and sunspots through a telescope protected by solar filters. And at night, the search is on for the stars of the southern skies. The telescopes are manned at all times by a qualified astronomer, able and willing to answer your questions.
Located three hours south of Christchurch, the Mt Johns Observatory offers some of the best views of both the New Zealand landscape and the southern skies. During the day, visitors can experience panoramic views of the Southern Alps and Mount Cook.
And at night, the stars come out to play.
You can walk or drive up to the observatory during the day. Once there, take a guided tour and look at the sun through the solar telescope. The Astro Café provides good food and amazing views.
Night time tours (at 10 pm each night) are offered by Earth and Sky Tours. They pick you up from the town center and drive up to the observatory. Once there, visitors are provide with a tour of the facility and the opportunity to see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, and the Jewel Box through telescopes, binoculars, and the naked eye.
There is also a Twilight Tour available, aimed more for those with young families. Starting right after sunset, this tour is shorter, but still provides the opportunity to look through the large telescopes.