Dunedin Astronomical Society

Contact Information

Email: dunedin.astronomy@gmail.com

Website: https://www.dunedin.astronomical.nz/


The Dunedin Astronomical Society is open to anyone with an interest in astronomy. The society operates from the Beverly-Begg Observatory on Robin Hood Park in Dunedin.

The observatory houses a Celestron C14 on a Paramount mount. A number of cameras including a QHY9 are available for use with the system. The society owns a number of other telescopes (including the very heavily used club built 18" telescope) and reference materials that are available to members. DAS has access to a farm cottage near Middlemarch which is used by members as a dark sky site.

During night time savings public sessions are held on Sunday nights starting at 7:30 pm. Education sessions for private groups may be made by arrangement through the education officer.

The Society meets on the first and third Tuesdays each month except January. Meetings start at 8pm and are held in the Observatory annex.

If you would like a notice considered for publication in our monthly newsletter send email to the newsletter editor.

Observatory: phone 03 4777683 (answer phone)

The Dunedin Astronomical Society

The Dunedin Astronomical Society was the second such established in New Zealand after a public meeting in September 1910, and by 1912 a membership of 254 was reported. For a short time around 1915 the society had a "Telescope House" on Tanna Hill (image below: Tanna Hill Observatory - 1910. Credit: Toitu Otago Settlers museum) in the grounds of the University of Otago, but this land was needed for development and the Society had to look elsewhere for a permanent home. In 1920 the current site for the Beverly-Begg Observatory in Robin Hood Park, Belleknowes was chosen, and construction of the observatory was completed in 1922. The observatory is named after local astronomers Arthur Beverly and John Campbell Begg who together contributed funds for its establishment.

Arthur Beverly was a watchmaker, mathematician, and astronomer. Born in Scotland in 1822 and educated at home and by a local shoemaker in the evenings, he was apprenticed at 14 to an Aberdeen watchmaker and optician, where he made a reputation as a lens maker. In 1852 he sailed to Australia and after a spell in the goldfields moved to Melbourne to work as a watchmaker, moving on to Dunedin in 1858, where he set up a business. For the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865, he exhibited a clock, known as the Beverly Clock. The clock runs on atmospheric pressure and changes in the temperature. An airtight box inside the clock expands and contracts throughout the day pushing on a diaphragm, taking only a six-degree Celsius temperature variation to raise a 500g weight more than 2cm. This in turn descends, powering the clock. The clock is still running despite never having been manually wound since its construction in 1864. The clock is now situated in the 3rd floor lift foyer of the Department of Physics at the University of Otago. He was also very interested in astronomy and built his own 3-inch telescope. This telescope has pride of place in our meeting room and was a prop in the 2002 BBC TV series ‘Space’ hosted by NZ actor Sam Neill.

John Campbell Begg was born in Dunedin in 1876 the son of early Otago settlers. He studied physics and philosophy at the University of Otago before turning to business and sheep farming. He was a founding member of both the Otago Astronomical Society, and the New Zealand Astronomical Society (later RASNZ). As well as contributing funds to the building of the Observatory, he gifted a 12-inch reflector. In 1920 a proposal was made by Yale University Observatory to establish a large photographic telescope in Central Otago. John Campbell Begg organised site testing at various locations, but unfortunately New Zealand was not able to commit sufficient finances, and the instrument went instead to South Africa. He died in Dunedin in 1965 age 89.

Over the history of the Observatory we were Dunedin’s time keeper, with a transit scope operating until the early 1930's until radio and time pips were introduced. Performing this vital task is the reason that the Observatory footprint is precisely aligned north/south, east/west, with the remains of the transit scope slot on the north wall.

Some 80 years ago, our pride and joy was a 4-planet orrery donated to the Society by Sir Louis Barnett. The orrery was the main feature of astronomy lectures given to packed halls in southern towns and communities. It is still bringing fascination to many, on our regular open nights. Since then, various records show a variety of interests in research, with records of lunar occultations back in the 1930's. Logbooks from those years have been deposited in the Hocken Library as a record of New Zealand’s early scientific endeavours. A more recent significant artifact is the likely first photo taken of supernova SN1987a from the Observatory.

Our main current area of interest is minor planet occultations, using video and GPS to observe and record events from asteroids within the main belt to beyond Pluto. These observations are made with a Celestron 14“ Schmidt-Cassegrain and Watec 910HX/RC video camera and utilising a range of imaging software. Some junior members of the Society are mentored by senior members as they develop their skills by searching for known supernovae in neighbouring galaxies.

Our public outreach is enabled by our fleet of 20 and 25 cm Dobsonians plus a couple of real ‘light buckets’. Past members built 35 and 40 cm Dobsonians that excel at showing fainter southern objects to northern hemisphere visitors. We participate in events such as Wild Dunedin and the bi-annual International Science Festival. And, as you would expect, we host many school and community groups. Whenever there is advance warning of an astronomical event, the public just turn up, confident that someone will be present at their city’s observatory.

In 2001 we were offered the use of an old cottage on a farm on the Strath Taieri within an hour’s drive from the city. The old farm cottage provides accommodation, with heat from a Shacklock coal range. Toilet facilities are primitive - an old fashioned out house with a bucket. More recently solar panels and a gas stove top have improved conditions. Observing at night, you still have to cope with frosty winter temperatures, as during the first winter the nearby stream almost totally froze over. You learn to dress accordingly, but clear dark skies have an appeal that can override any temporary discomfort. The Bortle scale is Class 3 with an SQM over 21. To advance the second century of observation and outreach at the Beverly-Begg Observatory, members are building a new storeroom to house the many telescopes used for public nights. A fibre internet connection was negotiated through the highly protected vegetation of the City’s Town Belt, but it is this light-shielded location that gives the Observatory its dark skies only 900 metres from the Octagon. Here the night sky is Bortle class 5, with a SQM of 19.5.

Our next major astronomical event won’t need a dark sky however. In 2028 the centre line path of a total solar eclipse will pass within 2km of the Observatory giving 2 minutes 51 seconds of totality. Society members are working with tourism organisations and Dunedin City Council to ensure that this unforgettable event is, well, unforgettable. We hope to see many RASNZ members, joining the tens of thousands of skywatchers from around the world, here, in the Moon’s shadow on 22 July 2028. 

Warren Hurley and Ashley Pennell