Story: Astronomy – overview
Captain James Cook was an astronomer studying the transit of Venus on the voyage which eventually led him to New Zealand. In the new colony, studying stars, planets and comets was the pursuit of many an enthusiastic amateur – a few made significant discoveries. Today, the country has more astronomy clubs per head of population than anywhere else in the world.
Full story by Maggy Wassilieff
Main image: The Stardome at Auckland Observatory
The Short Story
A quick, easy summaryRead the Full Story
What is astronomy?
Astronomy is the study of the universe, including the solar system, stars and galaxies.
The Polynesian ancestors of Māori used the stars to navigate the Pacific Ocean on their voyage to New Zealand. Māori recognised several star patterns and planets, and planted crops by the moon.
The first European astronomer in New Zealand was Captain James Cook. He was employed in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, before sailing to New Zealand. He mapped the new country using the stars to calculate longitude and latitude.
Many of the European settlers were interested in astronomy. They were not paid, but some made important discoveries. Among them was John Grigg, who discovered three comets in the first decade of the 20th century.
New Zealanders still enjoy learning about the night sky. In 2004 there were 24 astronomy societies throughout the country, some with their own observatories.
People can visit observatories, which house large telescopes, to see and learn about space. The major public observatories are the Carter Observatory in Wellington and the Auckland Observatory.
Mt John Observatory was built in the 1960s and is an important centre of research. Located in Canterbury, in the centre of the South Island, it is far away from city lights, and skies are very clear. It is the home of New Zealand’s largest telescope.