Wednesday, July 3, 2013

North Island Adventures

Yet again, I've let my travels get ahead of me, and I'm way behind in blogging updates. Since I last checked in, I've launched from Wellington and have been exploring astronomy education around the North Island. I'm now settled in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and home to 1/3 of the country's population. There's been a lot to explore, and I've learned a ton in a short amount of time.

The main theme of June has been Matariki, the celebration of the Maori New Year. Matariki itself is the constellation I know better as the Pleiades, and it's rising in the morning sky just before sunrise is one of the markers of the new year. There are other indicators of the new year in the stars, as well as the sea, but I'll discuss that later on.

From Wellington, I stopped first in Napier along the North Island's east coast. Although Napier is best known for its vineyards and art deco buildings, it also houses a small planetarium and astronomical society. The planetarium is run by Gary Sparks who is passionate about getting the word of astronomy and space exploration out to young people in New Zealand.
Napier vineyards
With Gary, I observed two schools visiting the planetarium. The first was a "community school," for students currently suspended or expelled from their regular schools. The most interesting question from that group came from one young man who asked what would happen if you punched someone in zero gravity (we had just watched a video called "AstroSmiles" about the everyday tasks on the space station). The next day, students visited from the local Waldorf school, and they also had their fair share of interesting questions including, "What's the most unusual thing that exists in outer space?" and "Are there any strange phenomena we can see at night?" Much more abstract than the standard aliens/black holes/shooting star questions that I hear over and over again.
Gary Sparks of the Napier Planetarium

Theater room of the Napier Planetarium. It's an older building, and the technology isn't as up-to-date, but the Napier Planetarium still has the power to inspire young people about the wonders of astronomy.

From Napier, I went to Tauranga/Mount Maunganui along the Bay of Plenty to meet with Jack Thatcher, who recently returned from a waka (canoe) voyage around the Pacific Ocean. His group sails immense distances around the Pacific using only traditional Maori navigation techniques, including observations of the stars and their movements. I joined Jack and some members of the community early in the morning for a Matariki celebration.

I learned from Jack that the New Year is marked not only by the helical rising of the constellation Matariki in the morning sky, but also by the new moon, the orientation of the Milky Way on the horizon in the early morning, as well as other indicators of winter such as tides and weather patterns. The official beginning of the Matariki celebrations was June 10, and on this morning I joined Jack and other members of the community for a walk up to the top of Mount Maunganui to try and spot Matariki itself. It was cloudy, but the sentiment behind the 5am walk was the same -- to ring in the New Year and reflect on the year past. It was a beautiful event, and I feel grateful for being welcomed to it.
Early morning walk to the top of Mount Maunganui to ring in the Maori New Year.
After sunrise, Jack then showed me around and spoke with me further about his voyages and the knowledge they hope to pass down about the movements of the stars and seas to younger Maori generations. Jack showed me a "Star Compass" he created which divides the sky into different regions where different stars are positioned. At the center of the compass, it is as if you're in the waka, and the posts mark the edge of the horizon. Located at the shore in Tauranga, Jack uses it as an educational tool to teach crew members and others in the community about navigational techniques.
Jack Thatcher (right) with one of his crewmates from Rapanui in front of the Star Compass which you can see as white posts in the background. 

From Tauranga, I went further east along the Bay of Plenty to Whakatane, where I met with the local astronomical society. Their facilities are wonderful, with two larger telescopes and a teaching room for school groups and larger meetings as well. And even with the town of Whakatane just at the base of the hill, the Milky Way and Magellanic clouds are clear in their dark night skies. Coming from the east coast of the US, where dark skies are disappearing rapidly, I have been really impressed by the consistently dark skies in New Zealand. Even in Auckland, if you drive 30 miles out from the city, there are skies dark enough to see the Milky Way in detail.

While in Whakatane, I also met with Gloria Witheford who travels around the North Island with her Starlab inflatable planetarium. She was visiting area primary schools, and I was able to tag along to her shows, which included some information about Matariki. Her main focus is to show a bit of the night sky in the planetarium in the hopes that kids will later go outside at night and experience the skies for themselves.
Gloria Witheford and her Starlab Planetarium.
In addition to traveling around and learning about astronomy education on the North Island, I've also been taking time to explore and appreciate New Zealand's natural beauty. This truly is a stunning place.
View of Mount Maunganui, Bay of Plenty. I think this is my favorite place I've been to in NZ so far. The town of Mount Maunganui is a long strip with water on either side, ending in the Mount as sort of the point of an exclamation mark.

Waterfront in Whakatane, Bay of Plenty
View from hills above Whakatane, Bay of Plenty.
Rotorua, known for its geothermal activity. There are tons of natural hotpools and hot springs all over the Rotorua area.
Creek and Waterfall fed by geothermal lake. (Went swimming here.)
I'm now in Auckland, with only two weeks left to go in New Zealand and 5 weeks left of Watson! I mentioned it briefly in my last post, but to finish off the year, I'll be traveling to Greece to attend the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics. I'll be acting as a volunteer journalist for the Olympiad as well as being an additional adult support person for the New Zealand team, whom I met in Wellington (photo below). It should be a great culmination to my year, as I will be speaking with many young people passionate about astronomy.
Team of high school students to represent New Zealand at the International Olympiad of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Volos, Greece later this month. This is just one of dozens of teams that will travel from around the world to display their knowledge as well as learn more about astronomy in ancient and modern contexts. 
Updates on my Auckland adventures coming soon!

1 comment:

  1. Incredible photos.... I love so many things about this post!! Wish I could go swimming in that geothermal creek with you! I can't wait to hear more when we skype & I'm so excited for you that you're capping off your year in Greece. YAY MAYA, you're amazing! -maddie