Astro tourism potential in Central

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Astro-tourism holds huge potential for Central Otago and various initiatives are set to create a new global focus on the region, those behind the projects say.

Moves to create a dark-sky reserve around Alexandra and Clyde are under way; the infrastructure for the Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) is being set up; an “interplanetary cycleway” on the Otago Central Rail Trail is planned; and other ideas are being floated by community, tourism and science leaders.

CSST steering team leader Dr Barrie Wills, who is also a Central Otago district councillor, said the ventures could combine to form New Zealand’s first “astro-village” in Alexandra, possibly featuring a large public observatory.

The creation of the dark-sky reserve had particular tourism potential, and could bring a new wave of visitors to the region, he said.

“We’ve already got the whole of the Mackenzie Basin [in a dark-sky reserve]. If we can add this [the Alexandra district], that would be huge.”

The Alexandra district was already known for its clear, unpolluted skies and one of the most important things needed to meet the criteria for a dark-sky reserve was an absence of light pollution, Dr Wills said.

The Central Otago District Council supported the creation of a dark-sky reserve and had already committed to replacing all street lighting with LED lighting, he said.

CODC infrastructure services manager Julie Muir said Naseby would be the first area to have its street lighting replaced, and all other areas in Central Otago would have LED lighting within several years.

Dr Wills, who is also a member of the Central Otago Astronomical Society, said interest in the society’s facilities at Alexandra Airport were increasing and the society often hosted night-sky viewings with its equipment, which included a Newtonian reflecting telescope built by the late Graham Long, of Ophir, and given to the society by his family.

Dr Wills, who is also chairman of the CSST steering group, said the CSST proposal was also creating tremendous excitement in the region.

The Alexandra-based CSST will establish an international satellite data exchange and collaborate with leading researchers and businesses, both here and abroad, to design, build and launch New Zealand’s first fleet of cube satellites.

CSST team member Gary Kelliher said it was early days for the proposal and the infrastructure was being set up at present.

However, as well as the scientific benefits of the project, it could eventually create tourist potential, with displays at the CSST and initiatives from other groups being run alongside the CSST’s scientific work.

Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin, whose PhD is in astronomy, said there was tremendous potential for astro-tourism in Central Otago.

“I think the runaway success of astronomy tourism in Mackenzie Country, especially around Lake Tekapo, has made a number of people realise that the dark, unpolluted night skies we enjoy in Otago have enormous potential to attract visitors interested in astronomy. The combination of rural dark sky with the fairly regular views of the aurora australis we get in this region make for a compelling reason to visit. Maybe in years to come we can market our region as the aurora capital of New Zealand!”

Another space-themed project planned in Central Otago would also be a worthy addition to the region, tourism representatives said.

The Otago Central Rail Trail and Otago Museum are joining forces to install a model of the solar system along the rail trail.

In the 1:100,000,000 scale model Earth will be 12cm in diameter and the sun 14m and planets will be up to 70km apart. Dwarf planet Pluto will be in Alexandra, Neptune will be near Lauder and Uranus will be near Oturehua or Tiroiti.