Friday, 21 June 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

A coincidence, a planetary spectacle and a piece of history

A coincidence, a planetary spectacle and a piece of history will merge together when a transit of Mercury is viewed in Cooks Beach at sunrise on 12 November.  The viewing will be open to the public, with telescopes placed at the Banks Street Reserve and astronomy experts on hand to explain to those present what is happening.

The event remarkably coincides with the Tuia - Encounters 250 commemorations taking place in Mercury Bay and nationwide, to mark the arrival of Captain James Cook and HMB Endeavour in New Zealand in 1769.

A key player in organising the event, the director of the Otago Museum and astronomer, Dr Ian Griffin, was in Whitianga earlier this month to touch with the Mercury Bay Museum and others who will be involved in the event. Rebecca Cox, manager of the Mercury Bay Museum says she feels very excited to be working with Dr Griffin and the Otago Museum.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Cook assisted his ship’s astronomer, Charles Green, in viewing a transit of Mercury (when the planet Mercury is viewed passing across the sun) with the first telescope ever used in New Zealand. Cook had sailed to New Zealand to view Mercury’s transit after observing the Transit of Venus in Tahiti earlier that year. Timing the two transits from different locations accurately established the distance between the earth and sun. It also assisted in pin-pointing New Zealand’s position on the world map.

The remarkable coincidence is that the transit will this year be fully visible from New Zealand almost to the day of Cook’s observation 250 years ago. Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot moving across the disk of the sun. Viewing opportunities will last about an hour. Mercury is a small planet, closest to the sun, with a cratered surface similar to our moon.

A live web broadcast of the transit will be made both from Cooks Beach and Canterbury University’s Mount John Observatory near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand’s pre-eminent astronomical research observatory.

The viewing of a transit of Mercury is one of several astronomy events and projects that will form part of the local Tuia - Encounters 250 commemorations in Mercury Bay. 

Among the other projects are Otago Museum bringing their “Lab in a Box” (a science lab in a shipping container) to Whitianga from Dunedin. The lab will be parked outside the Mercury Bay Museum around the time of the transit of Mercury. Dr Griffin says he is delighted that this “really cool laboratory” can be shared with the people of Mercury Bay. A blow-up planetarium will also be visiting Whitianga during that time.

An event that will attract a lot of interest is Te Mahutatanga o Takero, “The Mercury Rising Roadshow.” The event will feature talks by four of New Zealand’s top astronomers in Whitianga on Monday 11 November, after visiting Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The speakers are Maori astronomer, Dr Rangi Matamua, the director of Mount John Observatory, Karen Pollard, president of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, Dr Nicholas Rattenbury, and Dr Griffin.

The transit of Mercury on 12 November will be also be observed and transmitted worldwide  from Air New Zealand flights departing Dunedin and Invercargill.

Across New Zealand, nine high school students will be picked for an advanced astronomy course, including observing the transit of Mercury at Mount John Observatory or from an Air New Zealand flight. It’s quite possible that one or more of the students will come from Mercury Bay Area School.

Dr Griffin says he had a long-held hankering to view a transit of Mercury in Whitianga. “Maori sky lore is brilliant,” he says. “Back in 1769, Maori had great knowledge of the stars, as did Cook and Green. But unfortunately, they did not speak to each other and share their knowledge. However, this year we have the opportunity to come together and learn from each other.

“At the Otago Museum, we’re really delighted to have the opportunity to come to Mercury Bay and are encouraged by the excitement of Rebecca Cox and other local people about this year’s transit of Mercury. I would love to see something like an astrology festival - an annual star party - held in Mercury Bay. It’s something we would love to get involved in.”

Pictured: The director of Otago Museum, Dr Ian Griffin, and the manager of the Mercury Bay Museum, Rebecca Cox sharing their excitement about the planned viewing of a transit of Mercury Bay in Cooks Beach at sunrise on 12 November.

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