Tekapo's Earth and Sky plans new astronomy centre

New Zealand's world-class astro-tourism product has announced plans to build a new International Astronomy Centre.

Earth and Sky, New Zealand's world-class astro-tourism product, has announced plans to build a new International Astronomy Centre.

Earth & Sky Limited Partnership, a joint venture between Earth & Sky and Ngāi Tahu Tourism, has welcomed today’s announcement from Prime Minister John Key that the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) will co-fund the construction of an International Astronomy Centre on the shores of Lake Tekapo, through its Tourism Growth Partnership.

The new state-of-the-art facility will add to the existing astro-tourism experiences currently on offer through Earth & Sky and will provide a new day-time astronomy experience. The Tourism Growth Partnership will provide $3 million in funding, and an extra $7 million will be raised by the partners.

Aoraki Mackenzie, in the central South Island, is a gold-rated dark sky reserve, in recognition of the quality of the almost light-pollution-free skies of the region. An area devoid of urban light creates an incredible example of some of the clearest skies in the world allowing stars to burn brighter than you have ever seen them. 

The dark sky reserve includes the Mackenzie Basin, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, and the alpine villages of Tekapo, Twizel and Mt Cook. The 4300sq km area is bounded by a spectacular alpine landscape with the Southern Alps in the west, and the Two Thumb Range in the east. 

Earth & Sky Limited Partnership Chairman Graham Kennedy says the facility will be designed as an iconic building of significance, themed around astronomy. 

“Lake Tekapo is already considered among the best locations in the world for stargazing,” says Mr Kennedy.

“An International Astronomy Centre alongside the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory will draw more visitors to our country and to the South Island, offering a unique year-round attraction that they can enjoy during the day or at night.

“Between 1.5 to 2 million people travel through Lake Tekapo every year, but until now our night-time attraction has been limited to only those people staying in the area overnight. By adding a daytime option, more people will now be able to enjoy the Earth & Sky experience.”

The visitor experience at the new ‘Window to the Universe’ Centre will include virtual reality and an interactive science and education area. In this space, visitors will be able to learn about the founders of astronomy in New Zealand and discover how early Polynesian and Māori people used celestial navigation. They will also be able to dine at the café/restaurant or enjoy a drink in the Star Bar, all while enjoying the stunning Tekapo landscape both day and night.

In September, Ngāi Tahu Tourism announced it was entering a 50/50 joint venture with Earth & Sky. Ngāi Tahu Tourism Chief Executive Quinton Hall says the new facility will have a positive impact on the regional economy while also supporting the aspirations of the iwi.

“The International Astronomy Centre will be nationally and globally recognised for the unique experience it offers, so we look forward to seeing this project come to life over the next two to four years,” says Mr Hall.

“Tourism is one of New Zealand’s biggest export industries, and we would like to acknowledge MBIE for its support and vision for this project and the benefits it will bring to all of Aotearoa.” 

The Tourism Growth Partnership funding will be used to construct and fit-out the building, which will also showcase a 125-year-old Brashear Telescope and other historic astronomy equipment.

About Earth & Sky

In 2004, Earth & Sky was established in association with the University of Canterbury to help bring the leading-edge MOA telescope to the Mount John Observatory. Operated by the University of Nagoya, it is the largest telescope in New Zealand and during a normal clear night studies over 80 million stars in its search for Earth-like planets.  

From humble beginnings Earth & Sky is now acknowledged to be one of the leading global astro-tourism operations and has gained international attention for its initiative in helping secure dark sky recognition for the pristine Night sky above the Mackenzie Country. In 2008, the area was nominated as the Pilot scheme for the first World Heritage Park in the Sky.

Earth & Sky operates two Observatories at Lake Tekapo – the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory – regarded by UNESCO as one of the most beautiful easily accessible Observatories in the World – and Cowan’s Hill, which has a large range of telescopes in operation. According to recent information, the stars and Milky-way over the Little Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo now receive about as many web hits in China as the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. 

The Company's four cornerstone principles are Research, Education, Environment and Astro-Tourism. Earth & Sky employs up to 90 staff during peak periods, who also provide outreach on behalf of the University of Canterbury particularly in its efforts to mix science with tourism. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people will visit their day and night-time facilities in the coming year.