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Dark Sky Project launches new astro tourism venture

Dark Sky Project launches new astro tourism venture in Takapō

Discovering the wonders and beauty of the dark sky is also helping to uncover understanding of ancient Māori culture in New Zealand.

A new home of astronomy and astro tourism has opened in Takapō (on Lake Tekapo), offering the world’s first indoor, multimedia experience combining Māori astronomy and science.

Dark Sky Project, formerly Earth & Sky, today opened the doors to its new 1140sqm building on the Takapō lakefront.

The centre includes the Dark Sky Diner offering spectacular lake and mountain views, and a range of day and night dining options. It will be the departure point for the astro-tourism business’s outdoor, evening stargazing experiences.

Mana whenua / local Māori leaders from Arowhenua, Waihao and Moeraki rūnanga (tribal groups) blessed the building, named Rehua, and the Governor-General of New Zealand, Her Excellency Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy, opened the new experience.

Dark Sky Project is a joint venture between Ngāi Tahu Tourism and co-founders, Tekapo locals Graeme Murray and Hide Ozawa, who first dreamed of turning the skies above this little South Island country town into a sanctuary for the stars. Their dream evolved into a sustainability project on a major scale as the region turned itself into a dark sky sanctuary and built a reputation as one of the best night sky destinations in the world.

Mr Murray says it has been incredible watching the development take shape, especially the moment the large observatory dome was craned on in April. The dome houses the 125-year-old Brashear Telescope, which stands up to 9m tall and was in storage for five decades before being restored over the past two years. The Victorian masterpiece is part of the new 45-minute Dark Sky Experience.

“Ever since Hide and I stood on the summit of Ōtehīwai (Mt John) looking up at the night sky 15 years ago, it has been our dream to develop a home for astronomy in the heart of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, so that we could inspire a lifelong understanding and passion for our night skies,” Graeme Murray said.

Rebranding Earth & Sky to Dark Sky Project and the opening of Rehua marks a huge milestone in the business’s journey since it began in 2004 and entered into a partnership with iwi-owned tourism operator Ngāi Tahu Tourism in 2016.

Lisa Tumahai, Kaiwhakahaere (chief executive) of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, says the NZ$3 million in government funding provided by the Tourism Growth Partnership fund in 2016 was the kick-start the $11 million development needed.

“The Dark Sky Project is a world-class tourism experience that exhibits the values that unite us and our Ngāi Tahutanga. I truly commend mana whenua and all involved in the creation of an authentic experience that will see our ancestors’ stories told to the world.”

Ngāi Tahu Tourism Chief Executive Quinton Hall says Rehua will be a key facility in the Mackenzie region, ensuring the hundreds of thousands of people who transit through Takapō can enjoy lakefront dining both day and night, and an astronomy experience in any weather conditions.

“Dark Sky Project will add significant value to the region as more places around the world lose sight of their stars and visitors seek out places like Takapō where they can look up at the clearest, darkest skies,” Mr Hall says.

With Takapō in the middle of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the largest dark sky reserve in the world and the first to receive gold status – there is no better place for a new home of astronomy.

About the Dark Sky Experience

This fully guided, state-of-the-art 45-minute experience is a world-first and has been designed to be truly of the place, reflecting some of the important research undertaken by the University of Canterbury at the Mt John Observatory as well as tātai aroraki (Māori astronomy).

To ensure the Dark Sky Experience is authentic, Dark Sky Project worked with local tribal groups, leading Māori astronomy expert Professor Rangi Mātāmua and the University of Canterbury to bring to life the stories of the universe.

Tātai aroraki

Part of the new experience is based around the concept of a Te Whare Tātai - a school dedicated to teaching Māori knowledge about the cosmos: the stars, planets, galaxies, sun, moon, and everything that adorns the sky.

The students of these schools learned about creation, the connection between the earth, sky and sea, and how to interpret signs in the sky which could predict the year’s bounty of food, forecast the weather, and even gauge when accidents or death might fall upon members of their communities.

Māori used the sky as a roadmap and calendar, not only to mark place and understand where they were, but also to mark time and seasonality so they knew when the fish were running, when the birds were big and fat, and when the soil was fertile and ready for planting. and their seasonal way of life.

Brashear Telescope

The Brashear Telescope was used in the late 1800s by Percival Lowell for his studies of Mars. It stands at a maximum of nine metres tall, has an 18-inch refracting lens, and is beautifully crafted of brass, iron, steel and wood.

In the 1960s the Brashear Telescope was gifted to the University of Canterbury by the University of Pennsylvania for installation at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough funds to build a dome suitable to house the telescope so it was put into storage until a suitable home could be found.

In 2016, the University of Canterbury gifted the telescope to the Tomorrow’s Skies Charitable Trust to enable the long-held dream of restoration to be realised.

Science

The paid interactive experience provides the opportunity for multi-sensory interactions to help visitors to understand the scale of the universe, the wonder of its creation from both a scientific and cultural perspective, as well as the wonder of some of our most recent discoveries.

The spectacular, unpolluted night skies of Takapō attract people from all over the world, including top astronomers and physicists. The University of Canterbury’s (UC) astronomical observatory on top of Mt John provides outstanding conditions for observations and discoveries of the southern sky and is New Zealand’s premier optical astronomical research observatory.

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve was created in June 2012. It is recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson Arizona, and its recognition as a Reserve followed a detailed application made by the Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Working Party in January 2012.

The goals of the reserve are to promote star-gazing and astro-tourism, as well as to protect the astronomical research at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory.


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