A journey into the dark

 

 

On New Zealand’s South Island, David Whitley joins the hunt for planets in distant solar systems

Down below, the lights from the village of Lake Tekapo shine up towards the heavens. Or, rather more importantly, they don’t. They shine down towards the ground. Special lighting has been installed and covered so that it is focused downwards. In these parts, they want to keep as much human-produced light out of the sky as possible.

 We’re on Mount John, trying to guide ourselves along the paths and avoid the rabbit holes of the open ground with little red light torches.  Normal torches, or mobile phones, would give out a white light that interferes with the instruments of the observatory.

It is not our planet that’s of interest here – it the billions orbiting stars several billion light years away. The skies above Lake Tekapo were recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, and it was the first to be given a gold standard. The name’s something of a misnomer, as it’s the natural brightness of the skies here that make it special. You’d be hard-pushed to find anywhere better on earth from which to stare at the stars.

The Mount John Observatory is operated by the University of Canterbury in partnership with the University of Nagoya in Japan. As a sideline to assist with funding, they open the gates at night, allowing tourists to be given a guided tour of the skies above.

The site was partially chosen for its stable weather. The Southern Alps form a handy cloud-catching barrier, and Lake Tekapo to the east benefits from fairly consistently clear skies.

Alas, fairly consistently doesn’t mean permanent. And while a few stars are breaking through the wisps, the stargazing tour has morphed into the back-up option – the behind-the-scenes observatory tour. Which, as it happens, is much more interesting.

There are some phenomenally large telescopes up on the hill, and the first one we visit looks like some sort of weapon that should be kept under wraps in a Bond villain’s lair. It’s the McLellan telescope and it’s set up to pinpoint something in the sky, then follow it round. A 275kg mirror, made of special ceramics that don’t expand and contract with the temperature, allows for remarkably clear observations of stars billions of light years away. “This is basically time travel,” says one of the guides. “Everything we can see in space is coming from the past.”

Further up the hill is MOA, an even bigger telescope, and one that has a very specific job to do. It is looking for exo-planets around distant solar systems. It focuses on star-dense sections of the sky, regularly capturing images of them. What they’re looking for is differences in those images. If one of the dots doesn’t follow the usual patterns, it’s a decent indication that there’s a planet there. That information is passed on to researchers elsewhere who can then take a closer look.

It generates a phenomenal amount of data, and the clearest evidence of that is the room next to it where the evidence is analysed. We’ve all had enormous cold weather coats on outside, but everyone’s peeling down to base layers and sweating profusely. There’s a roaring, furnace-like heat in the room, and it’s coming from the cupboard at the side. “That’s not the boiler,” we’re told. “That’s the supercomputer processing all the readings.”

This room, on a remote hill in New Zealand, will probably be the starting point for us discovering life on another planet. It’s probably worth the sweat.

 

Disclosure: David visited the Mount John Observatory on a tour with Earth and Sky, as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

 

by David Whitley   

 

 

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