Dedication to night sky rewarded

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by Paul Gorman

A vision of the harm bright blue lights could do to the darkness of the Mackenzie Basin spurred Prof John Hearnshaw into action more than 40 years ago.

His work to protect the region’s dark night skies over many decades has now been honoured by the International Dark Sky Association with the Crawford-Hunter Lifetime Achievement Award, named after the two founders of the association.

Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Canterbury, Prof Hearnshaw was director of the Mt John Observatory at Tekapo from 1976 to 2008.

During that time, he lobbied the Mackenzie District Council for lighting regulations in the district plan, a move which would protect the observatory from increasing outdoor light coming from the village.

The control of light in and around Tekapo led to the much-vaunted establishment of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (AMIDSR) in 2012. Prof Hearnshaw was chairman of the reserve until recently and has organised Starlight Festivals in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

Under his leadership, the reserve was named the association’s “Dark Sky Place of the Year” in 2018.

Prof Hearnshaw said the award was “totally unexpected”.

“I really think, though, this is for work done by the whole board and acknowledges all of that.”

The light pollution issue was still highly relevant, with the installation of less intrusive yellow-amber LED street lighting around the Mackenzie taking longer than it should, he said.

Incoming Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand president Steve Butler said Prof Hearnshaw was a true visionary, having warned about the impact of blue-rich lighting as far back as the 1970s.

“John richly deserves this award for his dedication to protecting and sharing the night sky.

“Long before formalised organisations were campaigning, John took steps to protect the Tekapo skies. He foresaw the risk of blue-rich lighting and took steps to ensure rules were established.

“With the LEDs coming in now, a very strong source of blue light, John was probably 40 years ahead of his time with this issue.”

Prof Hearnshaw was a very “energetic achiever”, Mr Butler said.

“He is constantly working away quietly in the background. You often don’t realise quite what he has achieved. He has so many international connections and is very much into outreach and education.”

He was also the principal organiser of last year’s international New Zealand Starlight Conference, whose themes included the effects of artificial light at night on stargazing and on the environment and human health.