The future of New Zealand Astronomy

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Astronomy world-wide has undergone a fundamental revolution over the last hundred years. In most of the 19th century and before, astronomy was first of all, an aid to maritime navigation and a means of accurate mapping of localities on the Earth. To this end, time-keeping and astrometry were two of the principal tasks undertaken by astronomers.

Starting in the 1860s, changes in the way astronomers in Europe practised their science began to take place. For the first time they began to ask fundamental questions about the physical nature and properties of the stars. At first physics was hardly advanced enough to provide many answers. But physics also underwent a revolution, and by the early twentieth century astronomers began applying physics to interpret their observations. This revolution was only really successful from the 1920s, when a real understanding of stellar spectra using physics became possible, based on atomic theory and the concept of ionization.

The development of New Zealand astronomy mirrors these developments on a world scene. Certainly the first New Zealand astronomers practised time-keeping, navigation, the determination of geographical coordinates and astrometry. Later observers studied meteors and comets and theoreticians speculated on the nature of variable stars (Bickerton) and the origin of lunar craters (Gifford). It is fair to say that New Zealand was slow, however, to embrace astrophysics. The Carter Observatory, established in 1941, undertook some solar physics, and a photoelectric photometer to measure star brightness was used there soon after the Second World War (Thomsen 1950). But lack of resources prevented a fully-fledged research programme from being developed. Further study of meteors by radar was made at Canterbury in the 1950s and 60s. But only when Mt John Observatory was established with American help in the 1960s can we say that a firm base in observational astrophysics was established in New Zealand. By this time observatories specializing in astrophysics had already celebrated over 50 years or more of existence in many European countries and in North America, and the Commonwealth Solar Observatory on Mt Stromlo in Canberra, Australia, which was founded in 1924, has also provided a been developed into a strong centre for astrophysics. In this sense, New Zealand has had a late start in astrophysical research.

With Mt John now a successful research observatory, with astronomy and astrophysics being taught and researched in five of New Zealand's eight universities, and with important contributions to astronomy from a thriving amateur community, and New Zealand's participation in international astronomy projects such as MOA, IceCube, AMOR and SALT, and the new development of radioastronomy at AUT (with possible participation in the SKA project), the future of astronomy in New Zealand now looks reasonably bright, at least in some areas of astronomy. In spite of a late start, there is no doubt that New Zealand is now making a significant mark on the world scene in selected areas of astronomy and astrophysics. Perhaps only about a dozen to twenty professional astronomers actually work in New Zealand (the number depends on how one defines an astronomer), mainly in our universities. On the other hand about four dozen New Zealanders are professional astronomers overseas, and many have been or are astronomers of international distinction (e.g. Beatrice Tinsley, Gerry Gilmore, Dick Manchester, Andrew Cameron, David Buckley and others). If we add these people to the tally of astronomers in New Zealand, including a dozen or more amateur astronomers who make valuable research contributions, there is no doubt that in proportion to the total population (4.0 million), New Zealanders are making a significant contribution to the world of discovery in astrophysics and space science.

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