Frequently Asked Questions

We understand planning your visit and booking a stargazing experience can bring up many questions!

 

We've created the following answers to questions we receive regularly, we hope they help with the planning of your visit.

If we have not covered your question below, please don't hesitate to contact the team on 0800 327 5759 or email info@darkskyproject.co.nz

Before my experience

What is included in my guided experience?

All experiences are fully guided by experts in their field. Please refer to the specific tour pages for full information on the inclusions. All experiences depart from Dark Sky Project at 1 Motuariki Lane. The Summit and Crater experiences include return coach transport to their locations (University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory for the Summit Experience and Cowan's Private Observatory for the Crater Experience).

Where and when do I check in?

Our outdoor evening experiences depart from Dark Sky Project at 1 Motuariki Lane. Please arrive at least 20 minutes prior to your tour's departure time.

If you have booked the Summit or Crater Experience, a coach will take you to the tour locations and return you to Dark Sky Project. For safety reasons, you are not permitted to drive up Mt John or to Cowan's Observatory in the evening. You can park your car outside Dark Sky Project in the Takapō Western Carpark.

What do I need to wear?

Warm clothing is essential on our outdoor evening experiences, regardless of the season. The temperature can vary, it will also depend on the wind speed as well. Wind chill can drop temperatures below zero.

The Summit Experience is hosted at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory, approximately 1,029 metres (3,376 ft) altitude in a glacial region, with high wind exposure. During the winter months it often snows. 

Please wear strong, sturdy footwear suitable for walking on uneven terrain with minimal lighting. No glowing, flashing or light up shoes or clothing are permitted. We recommend wearing the following:

  • Summer (November - March): thermal wear, long pants, socks, sneakers, jersey, jacket and hat.
  • Winter (April - October): thermal wear, warm long pants, woollen socks, hiking boots or sturdy footwear that covers the ankle, jersey, snow jacket, gloves, scarf and hat.
Are the outdoor evening experiences family-friendly?

Our outdoor evening experiences are family-friendly with an age restriction of 5 years and over. Due to the late hours and cooler temperatures, we recommend selecting an earlier evening departure if you have younger children.

The Dark Sky Experience is indoors, 45 minutes and operates during the day, making it a great family option for those with young children. There are no age restrictions on this tour and under 5's are free.

Are the experiences accessible?

Please let us know your accessibility requirements when booking and we will endeavour to make special arrangements for your experience.

Which experience is best for me?

Dark Sky Project offer two evening stargazing tours, the Crater Experience, and the Summit Experience from the top of Mount John. We also offer an indoors, day time astronomy tour called the Dark Sky Experience, which is held at the Dark Sky Project Base (please note, this tour does not include any stargazing).

The Crater Experience is a wonderful introductory experience to stargazing in Takapō (Tekapo). Stargazing takes place at Cowan’s private observatory in a purpose-built crater, which limits light pollution and provides extra protection from the wind. The Crater Experience is particularly recommended for anyone who may have special access requirements. This tour is 1 hour 15 mins in duration, including transport time.

The Summit Experience is New Zealand’s premier stargazing tour, with stargazing taking place from the Summit of Mount John, home to the world leading research facility the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory. At 1,029m above sea-level this tour offers 360 panoramic views across the skies of the Mackenzie basin. This tour is 1hour 45mins in length, including transport time.
Both the Crater Experience and the Summit Experience will conduct stargazing using the naked eye guided by lasers, telescopes and through our observatory dome.

Our Dark Sky Experience is our indoor, all weather, daytime option, with tours operating up to 5 times each day. Held at our world class astronomy centre at the Dark Sky project base, this tour combines science, Māori astronomy and fascinating multi-media installations together in a ‘Big Bang’ of awe and inspiration. Suitable for all ages.

Can I book on the day?

Yes, we accept bookings on the day of the trip. However, please be aware that trips are extremely limited in capacity and often sold out, so you do run the risk of missing out.

What happens if there is bad weather or cloud cover?

Both of our stargazing tours, the Summit Experience and the Crater Experience are weather dependent. In the event that the guiding team lead determines no stargazing is possible due to inclement weather conditions, customers are offered the following options:

- An alternative indoor tour in our purpose-built technological experience. This will be an hour in duration, at the value of $49.50 per adult, $29.50 per child. If you choose to join this tour, you will then be refunded the balance of your original ticket price.

- Transfer to a later departure the same night, or another date of your choice (subject to availability). 

- Open date your booking (valid for 12 months). This voucher is transferrable to another person. 

When is the best time to stargaze?

No matter what time of the year, you'll always see something above that will blow your mind! The sky is often clearest during the cooler, winter months and at its darkest when there is no moon. That being said, the moon is incredibly fascinating in itself!

What's visible in the sky changes all the time. Our knowledgeable guides tailor their tour content to what is in the sky on that particular night and season, and will showcase the very best of the night sky whenever you choose to visit.

Our indoor Dark Sky Experience operates all year round, in all weather conditions and during the day.

Stargazing

How much astronomy knowledge is required?

No prior astronomy knowledge is required, however our experienced guides will tailor content based on your group’s preferences and existing knowledge. All experiences have ample time for questions and answers to ensure your knowledge is enhanced.

Will I see the Milky Way?

The Milky Way is the collective starlight of the billions of stars that make up our galaxy and can be seen clearly from the Southern hemisphere, provided the sky is clear of clouds and not too light polluted by the moon. During a full moon, a lot of starlight does get washed out, however a full or near-full moon is an incredible sight to see, especially through a powerful telescope!

When can I see an Aurora?

We do not run tours specifically to see an aurora. An aurora is a very rare phenomenon often only predictable a day or two in advance.

Auroras are dependent on the activity of the sun and require big solar flares or winds to shoot out in our direction, arrive on Earth and excite the gases at our North and South Poles. It is this interaction between the energy from the sun and the gas particles in the atmosphere that emits the beautiful colours and for this to be visible we need very dark, clear conditions, and for the aurora to reach Mt John. The sun lets off many flares every day that do not cause this phenomenon!

We recommend you keep an eye on our social media where we give updates and alerts for upcoming auroras, then you might be able to book a tour when one is predicted! Remember, the further South you are, the more likely it is you will witness the unforgettable Southern Lights!

How big are the telescopes we get to look through?

You will get the opportunity to look through various telescopes on your tour. We have portable 9 ¼ inch telescopes which, depending on the eye piece chosen by your guide, can range from 60-120x magnification. The guide will decide on what magnification to use depending on the size, brightness and distance an object may be from our perspective.

You will also get to go inside one of the Mount John domes which houses a 16" Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector or a 14” telescope dome at Cowan’s Private Observatory.

Can I look through the MOA telescope?

Unfortunately, not even the astronomers who carry out the research at the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory get to view through the MOA telescope. The MOA telescope takes images of planets and other objects in deep space, these images are then viewed on computer screens in a different room.

The MOA is so delicate and sensitive that when it is in operation no one can be in the same room, as our body heat makes it too hot!

What's the difference between the Summit Experience and the Crater Experience?

The stargazing in both experiences is very similar: same dark sky, same expert guides, and nearly same telescopes. The bigger telescope at Cowan’s Private Observatory (on the Crater Experience tour) is 14” in aperture, versus 16” for the biggest one we stargaze through on Mount John (on the Summit Experience tour). With the Summit Experience, you will stay 15 minutes longer at the observatory compared to the Crater Experience.

But the main difference is in the environment. The Summit Experience takes place on Mount John, which is the only professional research observatory in New Zealand, as well as the southernmost optical research facility in the world! This is a rare and exclusive opportunity to stargaze surrounded by large observatory domes, alongside a world renown research observatory.

Please note, the University of Canterbury telescopes are actively engaged in undertaking scientific research. You may see the domes moving around and catch a glimpse of the telescopes at work through the opening, but access to these private facilities is restricted. 

 

Can I take photos on my tour?

You can take pictures during your tour. Very importantly though, make sure you de-activate the flash before taking any picture, as bright light will disturb the scientific operations happening at the observatory.

If you need guidance on the best settings for astrophotography, feel free to ask our experienced guides. Many of them are also keen astrophotographers! 

My departure tour seems early. Is it going to be dark enough?

Our departure times are calculated according to the sun's altitude. At the time of the first tour, the sun is at a minimum of 8 degrees below the horizon. This ensures that stargazing starts after the official nautical twilight (12 degrees below the horizon).


Your group will arrive at the Mt John Summit or Cowan's Private Observatory at the end of twilight. You will witness the sky darkening over the first 30 minutes of the tour and by the time you start looking through telescopes, the sky will be at its darkest.

 

What stars and planets will I see?

Every night beholds something different. Our skies are continually changing across the seasons and the evening. Due to weather and atmospheric conditions, we are unable to guarantee exactly what you will see on any given night.

If you have further questions about your specific tour, please contact our astronomy guides at info@darkskyproject.co.nz