It’s 5am Sunday, 26 June and I have arrived at the Kūaotunu Domain next to the tennis courts and library. There is quite a crowd gathering in the darkness. People are wearing LED lights on head bands or carrying LED torches. I counted 62 shadows – there’s a lot of people and quite a few children. I’m greeted by a 6 year old ‘worker, Thomas Scorgie’ as he described himself), and told enthusiastically that there are sausages.
I have come to what is a public viewing event (of the skies) coinciding with Matariki and organised by a group involved with the Dark Sky Community Project of Kūaotunu Peninsula.
The feature in the darkness is a line-up of people eager to gaze through one of two specially mounted telescopes; one belonging to Alastair Brickell and the other to Edward Scorgie, both members of the Dark Sky Kūaotunu Community. There was a third telescope set up by a member of the public. Between 5am and 7am, one telescope is set to enable viewers to see planet Jupiter, bright and glowing with four of Jupiter’s moons all in a straight line. A closer peering reveals two of Jupiter’s bands of cloud. The other telescope is set to highlight planet Saturn. Later, when the dawn is almost upon us, the telescopes are set to view the crescent moon. It is wondrous, exciting and awe inspiring.
The line looks more like a crowd standing around, munching on a sausage, sipping hot coffee and chatting, whilst they await their turn at the telescope. Alastair Brickell, nimbly on his knees, directs each one to get the best view. Conversation covers more than the stars and the planets; there is talk about planting and re-planting, sand dune reclamation, shorelines. Everyone is urged to take a leaflet on The Dark Sky Community Project as well as a copy of a June Evening Sky Map supplied by Stargazers.
Chris Severne, Chairperson, and Paul Cook, Treasurer, of the Opito Bay Residents and Ratepayers Association (OBRA), spoke enthusiastically about the support needed to bring the official Dark Sky recognition for Kūaotunu Peninsula to a reality. They have 10 years applied for funding from various bodies and are on track. This project to make Kuaotunu Peninsula an official Dark Sky Community under the International Dark Sky Association has the support of all the residents and rate payers’ associations in the area and everyone is working together under the umbrella of the Kūaotunu Peninsula Biosphere Working Group.
Many people helped to make the Sunday morning, 26 June memorable but the force behind the energy of success is Alastair Brickell. His passion for the stars, his extensive knowledge of the sky and his affinity with the means to see them (telescopes), all stream out in the excited verbal but visual descriptions of what to behold at any point when looking up at the clear night sky. Everyone enjoyed the dawn experience and learned something new. Eighty percent of the world’s population do not see the stars. Many international visitors to New Zealand have never seen The Milky Way. To establish the Kūaotunu Peninsula as a Dark Sky Community does not require any great human feat, as the clear skies and stars and galaxies are already there, but the people who live on the Kūaotunu Peninsula will have ten years once Dark Sky Community status is achieved to ensure exterior lights comply with new lighting regulations. Most already do, thus enabling everyone to enjoy the skies unabated by settlement and industry.
“The organising group feels very encouraged by the high level of support locals have shown for the Dark Sky Project as seen by the high numbers turning out on a cool winter morning at 5am! This augers well for the future of the project.” said Alastair Brickell. “It was also very special to be able to hold it this year in conjunction with the first Matariki public holiday weekend, when the whole country is celebrating what can be seen in the night sky. We are hoping to hold these events on a regular basis with one at Kūaotunu over Matariki weekend next year and another mid-summer at Opito or Otama,”Alastair concluded.
Stargazers has recently been approached by an international group operating with the European Space Agency (ESA). They are part of a worldwide collaboration that is now looking for a dark sky location in northern New Zealand to site a robotically operated telescope to search for space junk and potentially dangerous asteroids heading our way. Space junk is a very serious and growing problem as even small pieces of debris about 1mm in size have the impact of a rifle bullet if they hit another satellite. Pieces 1cm in size pack the energy of a hand grenade due to the extremely high speeds at which they are travelling. It is possible that Stargazers may not be the ideal site for this venture due to slow internet connection speeds but other sites within the Kūaotunu Peninsula Dark Sky Community with faster internet are being explored.
Pictured is Alastair Brickell explaining planet Jupiter and its moons to eager viewers. Photo by Kevin Crawford.