The Carter Observatory
The Observatory is named after Charles Rooking Carter – 10th of March 1822 – 22nd of July 1896.
After our bimble around the Australian bit of the Botanical Gardens we visited the Carter Observatory, it is New Zealand's longest-serving national observatory. Named after Charles Rooking Carter, an English born entrepreneur, who gifted £2,240 from his estate to the Royal Society of New Zealand to establish an astronomical observatory in Wellington for the benefit of the people of New Zealand. Parliament established the Carter Observatory in 1937 and it opened its doors in 1941. Carter became a base for astronomical research in New Zealand. Work began with solar investigations and when new staff joined during the 1970’s it expanded to include variable stars, galaxies and asteroids. Carter Observatory became New Zealand's National Observatory in 1977. Carter Observatory celebrated its 70th birthday on the 20th of December 2011. The first thing to catch our eye was this very shiny telescope.
New Zealand’s Oldest Telescope: Was made in Scotland in 1750 by James Short. The optical configuration is a 3.5” F15, Gregorian type with a speculum – metal mirror. The mirror has a hole in it which allows the star image to be reflected back down through the centre of the mirror to the eyepiece. Focus is achieved by moving the secondary mirror up and down by small amounts with the small knob on the left of the eyepiece. The pillar and claw type mount is well-made and of an original design. This was the first equatorial type mount. The carrying case is the original made of mahogany. This telescope was bought by the late Peter Read in 1958 for one hundred pounds. The telescope is the brother to the one that is owned by Te Papa and was suggested to be one of the telescopes that Captain James Cook brought to New Zealand in 1769 to observe the Transit of Mercury at Mercury Bay on the top of Coromandel Peninsula.
Through a gap we found ourselves in a fascinating exhibition that intrigued me enough to write a blog for myself about ‘Stuff’ and ‘Māori Stuff’.
When my brain had been frazzled with facts, figures and unimaginable time-frames in the billions, we went in to the Planetarium to watch a presentation about the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Back to the exhibition we bimbled and read.
The White Feather: The Great Comet appeared above Mount Taranaki and the village of Parihaka in the morning of the 4th of October 1882. Visible in broad daylight, the comet was described by a witness as “a white feather attached to the crown of Taranaki”, and become a symbol of hope for the followers of the prophet Te Whiti. Te Whiti’s symbol for his campaign of passive resistance against the alienation of Māori land was a raukara – a white feather. His full name, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, translates as ‘the flight of the shining god Rongomai’ – a god who took the form of meteors and comets.
Bear held a large stony meteorite which was found in China, its aerodynamic shape was formed as it burned on entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The sharp flat edges are from when the meteorite struck the ground and broke into two. I touched a seven-kilogram iron meteorite that broke up high in the Earth’s atmosphere, scattering fragments as heavy as half a tonne over Namibia’s Gideon desert. Gideon meteorites were first identified in 1838, although indigenous people had long been using them to make spear points and tools. This meteorite is 90% iron and 8% nickel. It also contains small amounts of cobalt and phosphorus.
How Close Is Too Close ? On the 2nd of March 2009, the 40-metre asteroid 2009 DD45 passed within 75,000 kilometres of the Earth. That’s a huge distance by everyday standards, but in astronomical terms it’s just the closest of shaves – just a fifth of the distance to the Moon, and only twice as high as some satellites. Technically, any object larger than 150 metres wide whose orbit takes within 7.5 million kilometres of the Earth is classed as a potentially hazardous NEO. Kiwi’s play an important role in the global effort to find and track NEO’s, and identify those on a collision course with Earth. Once a NEO has dropped out of northern hemisphere skies, observations from New Zealand can be key to determining whether it’s a threat or just passing by. Astronomers at Canterbury’s Mount John Observatory photograph asteroids as they pass close to Earth, measure their position in space and calculate their possible orbits. The asteroid 3400 Aotearoa was the first to be discovered from New Zealand, by Mount John’s husband and wife team Alan Gilmore and Pam Kilmartin.
In the library we read about Cook and Harrison.
Captain James Cook sailed for the Pacific in August 1768 with secret instructions to search for the fabled great southern continent. But his first task was purely scientific. Every one hundred and twenty years or so, in a pair of transits separated by eight years, the orbit of Venus brings it directly in line between Earth and the Sun. From Earth, Venus can be observed crossing the disc of the Sun. At the beginning of the 18th century, Edmond Halley – England’s Astronomer Royal – realised the transit of Venus could be used to find out how far the Earth was from the Sun. Until this was known, astronomers had no way of measuring the scale of the Solar System. Expeditions to observe the 1761 transit of Venus were disrupted by bad weather and a war between England and France. In 1768, Captain Cook set sail for Tahiti, and one of the greatest scientific odysseys of the Age of Enlightenment began.
Edmond Halley’s method for measuring the distance from Earth to the Sun was based on a simple principle called parallax. Try holding out your index finger at arm’s length. If you look at it from one eye and then the other, it appears to jump to the side. Using geometry, it’s possible to measure the length of your arm by the amount your finger appears to jump. The same principle can be applied to the transit of Venus. As Venus passes between Earth and the Sun, its path across the Sun’s face will appear very slightly different to observers on opposite sides of the globe. Halley realised that if each observer timed when the transit began and ended – and if the distance between each observer was known – then astronomers could work out how far away Venus was and, from this, the distance from Earth to the Sun.
On the day of the transit, the 3rd of June 1769, the crew of the Endeavour spread out to different vantage points on the island of Tahiti with their telescopes and instruments. Captain Cook himself set up an observation tent at the place still known as Fort Venus. Although the weather was perfect, Cook’s observations were hampered by a ‘dusky shade’ that appeared around Venus as it entered the Sun’s disc, making it difficult to time precisely when the transit began. This phenomenon – now known as the black drop effect – is an optical effect thought to be created by the atmospheres of Earth and Venus. Despite this difficulty, mathematicians were later able to combine observations from around the globe to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun to within a few million kilometres of its actual value – nearly 150 million kilometres.
Captain Cook’s description of the transit. Cook was accompanied by a ship’s astronomer on all three of his passages to the South Pacific, his astronomical duties won him an extra one hundred pounds on top of his captain’s salary. Captain Cook wrote of the islanders: “These people sail in those seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them by day and the Moon and Stars by night.”
When Captain Cook left Tahiti, he was accompanied by Tupaia, a high priest from Raiatea. Tupaia steered Endeavour though a maze of islands and underwater reefs. He introduced Cook and his crew to Tahitian navigation, and explained how he used the curve of the Milky Way to predict the winds. Even when Cook’s south-west course took Tupaia into unknown waters, he was always able to point in the direction of Tahiti. Tupaia sketched a chart of the Pacific and dictated the names of one hundred and thirty far-flung islands, including Teatea and Pounama – almost certainly the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The high priest was instrumental to Cook’s encounters with Māori. In fact, Māori remembered the Endeavour as Tupaia’s waka – canoe. Tupaia died of malaria in Batavia – Jakarta en route to England, along with half the crew on Endeavour.
The transit of Mercury: When the Endeavour reached Whitianga Harbour in November 1769, Captain Cook and ship’s astronomer Charles Green went ashore to observe the transit of Mercury. The crew put up an observation tents. Cook carried an almanac that told him the precise time Mercury would begin to cross the face of the Sun in Greenwich. By comparing his observations with times at Greenwich, he could use the transit like a celestial clock to establish New Zealand’s longitude. The place where the two astronomers watched the transit – the first scientific observatory on New Zealand soil – was named Mercury Bay.
Astronomical observations were used to help chart New Zealand’s coastline. In a journal entry in February 1770, Captain Cook boasted that “the situations of few parts of the world are better determined than these islands.” In fact, Cook’s charts were so accurate that some were used into the 20th century.
Captain Cook moored at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound on all three of his voyages.
Stars guided both Captain Cook and Polynesian navigators to New Zealand. But Cook’s doom was also written in the stars. On his third voyage to the South Pacific, his ships arrived in Hawai’i just a few days after Matahiki – the Pleiades rose on the horizon. To the Hawaiians, this was a time sacred to Lono – the ancestral god of peace and fertility. It seems many believed Cook was the god. But when he returned after his ship was damaged, relations soured, and Cook was killed. Some believe this was partly because he came back at the wrong time in the Matahiki cycle.
John Harrison, 1693 – 24th of March 1776
The So-Much Desired Longitude of places: At the time of Captain Cook’s voyages, a ship’s position north or south – latitude, was easily determined by observing the angle of the Sun and certain stars above the horizon. But to find your position east or west – longitude, the navigators had to know local time and the time at a reference point – Greenwich. The first part was simple enough: the Sun is directly overhead at noon. But since pendulum clocks couldn’t keep Greenwich Time over long voyages, determining longitude was close to impossible. In 1707, a British fleet was shipwrecked and over two thousand lives lost because of an error in reckoning longitude.
Harrison’s Clocks: In 1714, the Board of Longitude offered a massive twenty thousand pounds reward - the equivalent of over two and a half million pounds in todays money - to anyone able to solve the longitude riddle. While astronomers at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich scoured the skies for a celestial solution, John Harrison, a self-taught watchmaker was designing a series of remarkable chronometers.
Harrison spent seventeen years working on this third 'sea clock' but despite every effort it seems not to have performed exactly as he would have wished. Despite this, it had proved a very valuable experiment. Certainly in this machine Harrison left the world two enduring legacies – the bimetallic strip and the caged roller bearing. The failure of the sea clocks 1, 2 and 3 were due mainly to the fact that their balances though large, did not vibrate quickly enough to confer the property of stability on the timekeeping. Around 1750 Harrison had also come to this conclusion and abandoned the idea of the 'Sea clock' as a timekeeper, realizing that a watch sized timekeeper would be more successful as it could incorporate a balance which though smaller, oscillated at a much higher speed. A watch would also be more practicable, another factor required by the Longitude Act of 1714.
His masterpiece was H4, a precision timepiece a little larger than a pocket watch. On H4’s maiden voyage to the West Indies, it only lost five seconds over two months.
H4 and the exact position of New Zealand.
K1, the marine chronometer Captain Cook tested on his second voyage. Made by watchmaker Larcum Kendall, it was an exact copy of the clock with which John Harrison eventually claimed the longitude prize. Captain Cook said “Our faithful guide through all the vicissitudes of climates.” Enough fun in the library, time for one final bimble before the Cable Car Museum. We found an area dedicated to some great minds.
New Zealand may not have the astronomical budget of larger countries but some of their astronomers are world quality. Over eight dedicated decades, Frank Bateson turned the art of observing variable stars into a science. He retired from his position as Director of the Variable Star Section of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2005, aged ninety five.............
Albert Jones is famous internationally for his ‘calibrated eyeballs’. In the course of his seventy-year career, Albert became one of the first people in nearly four centuries to observe a supernova, discovered two comets and made over half a million observations of variable stars.
The existence of dark stars was first suggested by an English natural philosopher in the 18th century. In the early 20th century, Einstein published his theory of relativity, which described regions of time and space so distorted that not even light could escape. But until about forty years ago, most scientists didn’t believe black holes really existed: they were considered just a theoretical curiosity. The first person to demonstrate mathematically how rotating black holes would act in the real world was a young New Zealand Mathematician called Roy Kerr, in 1963. Kerr’s solution to Einstein’s field equation – which Einstein described as ‘damnable difficult’ – showed that a spinning black hole drags surrounding space and time, like a tornado. His discovery has been called the most important exact solution to any equation in physics.
Until the late 1960’s, it was usually assumed that all galaxies of the same type were more or less the same size, composition and brightness. The ‘extraordinary and profound’ work of brilliant New Zealand astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley challenged that assumption. After completing a physics degree at the University of Canterbury, Beatrice went to study in the USA. There, she built up a sophisticated model of how galaxies change and evolve over time – a model that gave astronomers a much more accurate tool for measuring and dating the Universe. Beatrice battled an astronomical establishment dominated by men to become Professor of Astronomy at Yale University. Tragically, she lost her battle with cancer and died at the age of forty in 1981. She wrote: “All advances in science have been made by people who have thought along totally unconventional lines, and haven’t been misled by that Great Name having said it was true....... .”
The stellar career of Wellington born space engineer William Pickering 1910-2004 – on the left of the three men above, took him from Mount Victoria to the heart of the space programme and beyond. Pickering excelled as a student at Wellington College. After studying electrical engineering at New Zealand’s Canterbury University and physics in the United States, Pickering was appointed director of California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – JPL. Here, he led a team of engineers and scientists from 1954 to 1976. In 1957, when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik into orbit, Pickering organised America’s hasty reply. Less than four months later the first American satellite, Explorer 1, blasted into orbit. Its success was largely thanks to Pickering’s diplomacy and cool in the face of several million-dollar meltdowns that got not further than the launch pad. Pickering went on to direct the Mariner Missions to Venus in 1962 and Mars in 1965 – achievements that twice put him on the cover of Time magazine. But it was the Pioneer and Voyager probes, planned under Pickering’s leadership but launched after his retirement, that Wellington’s Rocket man considered his greatest legacy.
........... and then there was Bear..........a true Space Cadet........
ALL IN ALL REALLY ENJOYABLE