The Townsend ObservatoryAs a result of the recent Christchurch Earthquake (22 Feb 2011) the Observatory based at the Christchurch Arts Centre is closed indefinitely.
The historic Townsend telescope, a 6-inch refractor made by Thomas Cooke and Sons of York, England in 1864, was recovered from the rubble of the Arts Centre tower which collapsed on February 22 in the earthquake.
The telescope is badly damaged but miraculously the objective lens was completely unscathed. The delicate gears of the clock drive and governor that drove the telescope in right ascension were also recovered and are not badly damaged. The telescope tube is not a pretty sight, but there is hope that the whole instrument can be restored. Also found in the rubble was the telescope log book in which the June 1996 event to mark the centenary of the telescope’s installation at the Canterbury University College was recorded with an attendance from many in the Department as well as by Sir Arnold Wolfendale, the UK Astronomer Royal of the time.
The Cooke 6-Inch Refractor Telescope
The Townsend telescope was made in 1864 by Cooke and Sons of York and London. Whether it was made for James Townsend or not is not clear, nor is the exact time of its arrival in New Zealand. However it is known that James Townsend used it to observe the 1882 transit of the Sun by Venus. The telescope was installed at James Townsend's home in Park Terrace until, in his seventies, James Townsend wished to donate his prize possession to the community.
Photo above and below were taken by Lionel Hussey mid 1980's
History of the Townsend Observatory
In 1891 James Townsend presented Canterbury College with the Cooke 6-inch refractor telescope. At the same time the Astronomical Society of Christchurch offered to hand over their funds (about £420) on the understanding that the college would erect an observatory. Sadly Townsend died in 1894, before he could see his gift honoured.
In 1895 it was decided to use funds that had earlier been set aside for the establishment of a medical school to erect a biological laboratory and to include a tower for the telescope. The biological laboratory and tower were opened in March 1896, and the observatory was in place shortly afterwards.
Originally the dome used to house the Cooke refractor was constructed of canvas and wood. This had to be replaced in 1914 by another dome constructed of the same materials.
By the time of the big snow in 1945, the dome had rotted again so that a replacement was again required.
It was to be another five years before the dome was replaced. This time however, Bernie Withers of the University Electrical Engineering Department had designed a solid steel geodesic dome. So in 1950 this dome was installed, and still provides much better protection from the elements and birds.
The Townsend Observatory Today
The Townsend Observatory is the only part of the Arts Centre still owned by the University of Canterbury. Each year the Department of Physics and Astronomy appoints a student as the Townsend Observer. Public viewing is held during the months of the year when there is no daylight saving.
Now restored to near new condition, the telescope offers good views of the Moon, planets, stars and star clusters and other bright objects. In late March 1996, the Townsend observatory reached its first 100 years.
The Townsend Observatory is located in the Christchurch Arts Centre (Hereford Street side).
The Townsend Observatory used to be open to the public on clear and partly cloudy Friday nights during New Zealand Standard Time (outside day light savings months). These public viewing sessions were operated free of charge for the promotion of astronomy.
Any enquiries can be directed to the e-mail address below: email@example.com