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Could keeping Oxford in the dark help cement its future as a tourist destination for stargazers? PHOTO: CHRIS HAWES

By DAVID HILL

Oxford’s Observatory is hoping for a bright future as an astro-tourism destination, but it will need the darkest of night skies.

The observatory is moving to protect its night sky from light encroachment.

Observatory volunteer Chris Hawes recently prepared a submission to the Waimakariri District Council’s District Plan Review on the issue.

While researching the submission, he discovered that Oxford’s night sky had a similar dark-sky reading to Tekapo, according to Nasa’s website.

“That was a huge surprise. We are now considering the possibility that Oxford could also become a dark sky area,” Chris says.

Oxford Observatory is now working with lighting engineers to make a submission to protect Oxford’s night sky as part of the district plan review.

LED streetlighting is a hot topic among astronomers worldwide, as the white light can be detrimental to stargazing and is even affecting wildlife, Chris says.

The town’s dark sky, and being just an hour’s drive from Christchurch International Airport, makes Oxford the ideal location for astrotourism, volunteer James Moffat says.

He has been working with Enterprise North Canterbury and ChristchurchNZ to establish Oxford as the starting and finishing point for a new “Inland Scenic Star Trail” connecting established tourist destinations Tekapo, Mt Cook and Queenstown.

“We wanted to get Oxford on the map as a destination, and having the observatory in Oxford is a unique attraction that gives visitors a reason to stay overnight and come and see the night sky,” James says.

“It’s all about getting visitors into Oxford and that then supports other local businesses like accommodation and restaurants, too.”

Oxford Village Motels owners Jan Mueller and Susanne Schulze, who are German nationals, have expressed a keen interest in the idea.

“I remember when we first came to New Zealand as overseas tourists, we had a ‘to do list’ and Oxford is not normally on these lists,” Jan says.

“But there are more and more people with specialist interests, whether that be horse treks or stargazing, so this is a chance to get more people to Oxford, so we will try to support them in any way we can.”

Offering astronomy tours to international tourists means the observatory urgently needs
an upgrade.

The school’s Board of Trustees earlier this year decided to focus its efforts on fundraising for a new Meade 16-inch telescope.

James says a 16-inch telescope will have 300 percent more light-gathering ability than the existing 10-inch telescope.

Principal Mike Hart says the school is excited about the venture, which will have major
spin-offs for students in North Canterbury who are interested in astronomy.