Looking up at the sky is not only a popular thing for MetService meteorologists, but also for New Zealand’s astronomers. One spot, especially popular with astronomers, is in the central part of the South Island. The area around the Mackenzie basin and the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, is an internationally recognised Dark Sky Reserve thanks to its clear skies and the lack of light pollution.
Another spot likely to be full of astronomers this week will be Lauder in Otago. At around 4am on Tuesday, Pluto will pass in front of a distant star allowing astronomers a small window of opportunity to study the thin atmosphere of the dwarf planet. Although the shadow of Pluto will pass over the Pacific Ocean, Otago will be one of the best spots in the world to witness the stellar occultation. Lauder is home to a NIWA observatory with a long history of atmospheric and astronomic observations. The station has recently been recognised by the World Meteorological Organization for its outstanding work in upper-air meteorology, and is one of the first stations in the world to be added to the Global Reference Upper Air Network (GRUAN). Congratulations Lauder!
As Pluto passes in front of the star, the light from behind will allow astronomers to catch a glimpse of the atmosphere surrounding Pluto. Using a method known as ‘spectography’, the astronomers hope to be able to find out more about the make-up of Pluto’s atmosphere, as well as information such as the depth and circulation of the atmosphere.
It’s not just ground-based astronomers that will be watching the occultation—a team of scientists from NASA has travelled over to New Zealand to study the event as part of the SOFIA programme. The SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) is the world’s largest airborne observatory and consists of a telescope mounted inside a modified aircraft. The telescope is huge, with an effective diameter of two-and-a-half metres. Like all aviators, the weather is a key factor in planning each of the flights undertaken by the SOFIA team. The meteorologists here at MetService, have been providing weather forecasts for the SOFIA team while they are based in New Zealand, flying out of Christchurch.
The team at NASA has put together a video which explains more about SOFIA’s southern deployment
While SOFIA can fly above the clouds and water vapour, those at Lauder keen to witness the event will be keeping their fingers crossed for the cloud to stay away. After the long clear and cold skies of last week, it looks like the change to southwesterly winds over the weekend brings the potential for a little more high cloud in Otago early Tuesday morning. As always, the forecasters will be keeping a close eye on the cloud forecasts coming up. Stay up to date with the latest forecasts on MetService.com and on MetService social media pages.
This isn’t the first time that New Zealand has been the perfect spot for witnessing astronomical events. Back in 1769, James Cook arrived in New Zealand to watch the transit of Mercury as it moved in front of the sun. Te-Whanganui-o-Hei in the Coromandel where Cook and his astronomer Charles Green made their observations, is now known as Mercury Bay.