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Historic telescope will return stargazing to city

Historic telescope will return stargazing to city

The University of Canterbury (UC) Foundation charity aims to bring back a piece of Christchurch’s astronomical heritage by restoring the Townsend Teece Telescope to the city centre.

For 114 years, the telescope was available for public stargazing on clearFriday nights, and introduced people of all ages to the wonders of the night sky and the science of astronomy. Since its installation in the University’s Observatory Tower in 1896, the telescope was maintained and operated for public viewing by what is now the University of Canterbury’s Department of Physics and Astronomy as part of its commitment to science outreach in the community.

The Observatory Tower was damaged in the 4 September 2010 Christchurch earthquake and collapsed in the 22 February 2011 earthquake. The telescope was badly damaged in the collapse, but, miraculously, the lens was found intact.

The University of Canterbury Astronomy Department is holding an exhibition of the Townsend Teece Telescope pieces, including a look into the upcoming restoration project. This is on display to the public in the gallery space on the ground floor of the Matariki building at UC’s Ilam campus until 6 July.

The Townsend Telescope, donated to the then Canterbury College by James Townsend in 1891, is a historic 6-inch refractor constructed by the renowned English telescope-making firm Thomas Cooke & Sons of York & London in 1864.

A generous donation by UC alumnus Professor David Teece, his wife Leigh Teece and their family, will allow the restoration of this historic telescope. Renamed the Townsend Teece Telescope, the restored telescope will be returned to a rebuilt Observatory Tower in its heritage central city home in the Christchurch Arts Centre, enabling the people of Christchurch and visitors to enjoy stargazing through this beautiful and historic telescope once again.

Professor and Mrs Teece will be coming to New Zealand from their home in California to visit the exhibition in June.

This exhibition showcases the story of the telescope: its famous craftsman telescope maker, to its original Christchurch owner who observed the transit of Venus and searched in vain for the planet Vulcan, to its donation to Canterbury College and its use as a public outreach and engagement tool in its heritage central city site.

Associate Professor Karen Pollard, Director of the University of Canterbury’s Mt John Observatory says that astronomy allows us to think about our place in the universe and is particularly fascinating for children.

“The telescope is a very useful vehicle for introducing science to children and getting them interested in asking questions about how the world (and the universe) works. This is the reason that the Townsend Observatory was so useful as an outreach tool for the Department of Physics and Astronomy – it was very accessible and was a way of bringing astronomy and science to children and the wider public.’

Sarah Bouckoms was the last Townsend Observer to use the telescope before the earthquakes brought the tower tumbling down.

“I loved teaching the children about the stars, and watching the wonder on their faces as they realised they’d seen the real thing, not pretend stars painted onto the end of it. It was fun watching fathers telling their children about Granddad taking them to use the telescope when they were their age,” she says.

Chris Whitty was the site manager at the Arts Centre at the time of the earthquakes and remembers using the telescope as a young boy.

“Having worked at the Arts Centre for 23 years, I was absolutely gutted when the Observatory Tower collapsed, burying the telescope. Thankfully there were no major injuries as the Tower was covered in scaffolding for repairs, and we had been inside the Tower exactly a day earlier. It took a week to sift through the 35 tonnes of rubble to find the remains of the telescope,” Whitty says.

“Finding the telescope lens intact was a miracle and means that it can be reconstructed. With the salvaged stones from the rubble, we can also rebuild the tower, bringing Townsend’s legacy back to life. I’m looking forward to showing it to my own boys.”

The Townsend Teece Telescope will be restored over the next three years by Graeme Kershaw, Senior Technician in the UC Physics and Astronomy Department.

“The Cooke refractor is the epitome of the popular perception of what a telescope looks like,” he says.

“Built of brass, cast iron and bronze, it looks like a telescope, one that you look up into in direct line of sight with the object you are viewing, as if you are seeing the object with your naked eye. Some of the people who have used this telescope literally shed a tear when they saw images of the wreckage for the first time. For those people the Townsend has become a part of their lives, a part of their history.”

The telescope campaign fund remains open to donations to support education programmes and future maintenance at www.telescope.org.nz. To support the work of the University of Canterbury, please contact Jo Dowling, Executive Officer of the UC Foundation, Ph: 03 369 3542 or emailjo.dowling@canterbury.ac.nz

ENDS

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