Astronomy Section, Nelson Science Society

Contact information

Phone: 027 612 5830

Email: [email protected]

Meetings are held the first Thursday of the month at Landcare Research, Milton/Halifax Streets, Nelson.

Star Parties are held once a month at the Atkinson Observatory, Princes Drive, Nelson.


Convenor - John Burt

Secretary - Dennis Goodman

Treasurer - Barry Korcheski

Public Outreach co-ordinator - Robert Rea

Committee - Ralph Bradley. Glenn Patchett

Representative to the RASNZ Affiliated Societies Committee: Dennis Goodman

The Nelson Astronomical Society

By Hamish Barker

Astronomy in Nelson would have started with Māori astronomical knowledge (Tātai Arorangi), a subject beyond the scope of this article but nevertheless a notable beginning. The current Nelson Astronomical Society stems from two roots. One root is that it is a subsection of the Nelson Science Society, originating in the Literary and Scientific Institution of Nelson formed in May 1841 on the New Zealand Company's ship, Whitby, on the settlers' voyage to New Zealand, with Captain Arthur Wakefield as the chairman. It thus began even before the ship's arrival at what would become Nelson. The other root of the current society is the Nelson Astronomical society which was formed in September 1956 at a meeting called by the first president (and later recipient of the RASNZ Murray Geddes Prize), Len Morley. In between these two dates, Nelson Lawyer (among other activities) and keen amateur astronomer Arthur Atkinson observed the 1882 Transit of Venus as an official observer of the Royal Society of London, and provided many public lectures. The telescope used for the transit observation was a 4 inch refractor manufactured by Browning of London. An exquisite Browning refractor of that vintage still exists in Nelson, at Atkinson's historic home "Fairfield", although the mounting is not the same one as in a photograph of Atkinson, taken in 1895. Thus there is some uncertainty as to whether this is in fact the same telescope. The original Atkinson Observatory in Alton Street in 1915 was later relocated to the top of the Bishopdale Hills.

The original observatory was replaced by the current observatory, a commercial dome with masonry walls, built at Clifton Terrace School in 2008 with the support of the Cawthron Institute.

The original, historic 5 inch aperture Cooke refractor, dating from circa 1882, was retired and replaced by a 14 inch Celestron C14 in 2018 after a highly successful fundraising campaign. It is almost exclusively used for public nights several times per month during the observing season, providing excellent views along with a pair of 8 inch portable telescopes based at the observatory. Two other donated telescopes, one 7 inch reflector and one 80mm refractor are available for loan to members. The late Albert Jones of Nelson was one of the most prolific variable star observers, with several hundred thousand logged observations, which were used in many published scientific papers. Nelson Astronomical Society will be hosting the 2024 RASNZ Conference on 24-26 May 2024. Originally the conference in Nelson was scheduled to coincide with the centenary of the Cawthron Institute (founded in 1921 by bequest from philanthropist Thomas Cawthron) but was rescheduled to 2024 due to the covid pandemic and the intervening RASNZ centenary (Wellington 2021) and Auckland Society centenary (June 2023).

Contemporary activities of the society include monthly meetings, usually with talks either by a member or invited speakers, as well as public viewing nights at the observatory on some friday nights outside of daylight savings periods. Following the international dark sky park accreditation of Wai Iti domain about 25km from Nelson, star parties have been held there several times per year.