Introduction

The little-known Transit of Venus Historic Reserve at Burnham is the site of successful British observations of the transit of Venus 130 years ago - and tomorrow DOC will return to mark this history.

Date:  05 June 2012

Snow falls at Transit of Venus Historic Reserve removing chance of observing the transit on 6 June 2012.
No chance to view the transit of Venus
today (6 June)

The little-known Transit of Venus Historic Reserve at Burnham is the site of successful British observations of the transit of Venus 130 years ago - and tomorrow DOC will return to mark this history.

Weather permitting, the slow path of Venus across the sun will again be seen from the tiny reserve, which still has the original brick pillars built to mount instruments used to record the rare astronomical event.

This is a unique chance to acknowledge the history of the transit and its scientific importance, says DOC historic heritage advisor Ian Hill.

“Its 130 years since the British successfully observed the transit of Venus from this site and calculated the distance of the sun from the earth.”

Instrument piers at Transit of Venus Historic Reserve, Burnham.
Instrument piers at historic reserve

We won’t get this chance again until 2117 so it’s literally an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Getting a more accurate solar distance was one of the great scientific quests of the 19th century and led to heroic expeditions by many nations to sites around the world, including New Zealand.

British Royal Astronomer, Sir George Airey, chose Canterbury as the best place in New Zealand to view the transit and tackle, in his view, “the noblest problem in astronomy”. 

The Burnham site was picked as the primary observing site as it was close to the railway and the telegraph, which enabled clocks to be synchronised with other observers around the country and longitudes fixed.

The British had first observed the transit from the site eight years earlier, in 1874, but didn’t get the desired solar measurement due to a combination of poor weather and technical failings.  They were more successful for the 1882 transit, however.

The Burnham site was made a reserve in 1920 in recognition of the historic event and to preserve important survey reference points.  Less than half a hectare in size, the DOC-managed reserve is now located within Burnham Military Camp and is not open to the public.

Contact

Fiona Oliphant: +64 27 470 1378

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