Paris astronomer travels to use Dunedin telescope

French astronomer Francois Colas, of the Paris Observatory, looks over a 35cm telescope at...
French astronomer Francois Colas, of the Paris Observatory, looks over a 35cm telescope at Dunedin’s observatory. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Dunedin's humble observatory might be perched in a quiet city park but it is being used to study a giant asteroid which is so big that it has its own rings.

And a French astronomer, Francois Colas, of the Paris Observatory, has made his first visit to New Zealand, specifically to study the asteroid, called Chariklo.

This is believed to be the first time for  several decades at least,  that a European astronomer has travelled to Dunedin to use the city’s Beverly-Begg Observatory to make observations.

Dunedin Astronomical Society president Ash Pennell said observations from Dunedin last year had put the observatory and the city on the international sky-watching map.

And the visit of Mr Colas was "a big and very welcome feather in the astronomical cap of Dunedin," he said.

Mr Colas explained that the observatory’s southern location and its high-quality, computer-assisted 35cm telescope, had contributed to his decision to head south.

By carefully watching when the giant asteroid — believed to be about 250km across — eclipsed light from a distant star early yesterday,  it was possible to learn a great deal more about the asteroid, including potentially its size and composition.

This asteroid orbits the outer realms of the solar system, between Saturn and Uranus, and in 2014 astronomers discovered  it has two rings of rock or ice.

The asteroid is the first non-planetary object ever found with its own ring system.

Mr Colas said scientists knew "nothing about the mechanism of formation and evolution" of these rings.

And during his Dunedin trip he was seeking more information to improve estimations of the "size, shape and mass" of the asteroid itself, and to clarify its composition.

Last year, a team of Dunedin amateur astronomers at the observatory, led by Mr Pennell, made some internationally important observations of the remote icy dwarf planet Pluto.

This was "probably the most successful observation" made by the Dunedin Astronomical Society in its more than 100-year history, Mr Pennell said.

And, importantly, French astronomical interest in that Dunedin research  has resulted in closer links being developed between Dunedin astronomers and professional astronomers based in Paris.

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