Future of college telescope uncertain

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Ashburton Astronomy Group president Ken Lucas (left) and group secretary Alistair Perkins, would like to know what plans Ashburton College have for the telescope.

Tucked away at the back of Ashburton College is a little brick building that could be mistaken for a caretakers hut, but is in fact an observatory housing a rare and historically important telescope.

The Ashburton Astronomy Group use the scope to explore the heavens and group president Ken Lucas said while the astronomy group operates and maintains the scope, Ashburton College owns it.

The large scope dates from around the 1860’s -70’s.

Group secretary Alistair Perkins said the telescope is a Newtonian Reflector, named after Issac Newton.

“It is quite rare for a telescope to be in a high school, I don’t think there are many in New Zealand that have got their own observatory, it’s pretty rare,” he said.

The roof of the observatory rolls back to reveal the stars on clear nights.

The scope was originally part of the old Ashburton high school and was moved to the Ashburton College site in the early 1970’s.

A specially designed mounting was produced for the scope at that time, made by local company Horrell Engineering.

The future of the observatory is uncertain as it is located on the school grounds where the Ashburton College rebuild work is expected to start soon.

The group have asked the college what plans they have for the future of the observatory and telescope, but have yet to get an answer.

“I don’t think people realize how historically significant it is,” Alistair said.

The astronomy group meets once a month and opens the observatory for the public.

Ken and Alistair have witnessed plenty of fascinating things through the scope over the years, but one event stands out for them.

“One of the most interesting events was in 1994 when the Comet Shoemaker Levy impacted Jupiter, you could actually see the marks on the planet and the results from the impact, the huge marks were about the size of earth,” Alistair said.

What got Ken interested in first exploring the stars was curiosity. “I just wondered what was out further,” he said.

Alistair said it was the Apollo 8 mission, the first crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon that sparked his imagination as a youngster.

“It was 24 December 1968, I was out walking on Wakanui beach and I looked up and saw the crescent moon, and I suddenly thought three men are orbiting that world. It was a lightbulb moment, that’s what generated my interest in what was happening up in the night sky.”

-By Daniel Tobin