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Having a blast .. Damien McNamara and Keana Kearns (10) prepare for their tour of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the world's largest flying observatory, in Christchurch. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

School children interested in science and astronomy didn’t have too many extra-curricular activities to keep them busy – until now.

Damien McNamara, an astrophotographer and self-confessed “space geek”, has established a programme for local children to get involved with science and astronomy.

The idea came about after another initiative he developed proved to be a success.

About a month ago, Mr McNamara ran a social media campaign via Facebook that asked local parents and schools to nominate pupils who had an interest in science or astronomy and wanted to learn more.

“I’ve really gone down the route of outreach education and getting kids involved. I just recently discovered some of the schools in town only teach astronomy once every couple of years as part of the curriculum, which doesn’t sit too good with me.

“I decided to do a bit of stuff to get kids enthused .. just kids that have an interest in astronomy, are doing well at school and would benefit from something like that.”

Seven children were nominated and one, Weston School pupil Keana Kearns (10), was selected to accompany Mr McNamara on a guided tour of the world’s largest flying observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia), based in Christchurch.

Sofia is a joint project between Nasa and the German Space Centre.

He said the tour came about after he worked with space agencies two years ago.

“I assisted the Nasa, Sofia and New Horizons teams in 2015, trying to locate a viewing location south of Timaru, so the ground-based team could get a better view of the occultation of Pluto while Sofia viewed it from the air and the New Horizons probe viewed the planet during its fly-by.”

Mr McNamara said that inspired him to create the space programme.

“I felt a bit bad because I had seven kids nominated in total and could only pick one, so I started this space cadet programme so the six other kids that were nominated could do something along the same lines.

“It’s basically a watered-down science version of Scouts. We won’t have the monthly or weekly get-togethers. It’s stuff the kids can do with their parents .. it’s something to inspire the kids.”

He said it was a “really exciting time” to be into science and astronomy with RocketLab in Mahia, Nasa launching high-altitude weather balloons from Wanaka, Nasa basing Sofia in Christchurch each winter, and Earth & Sky building a new astronomy centre in Tekapo and a similar project planned for Alexandra.

“It’s going to be a massive industry. We are part of the space race .. it’s right on our doorstep and we just need to get our kids into it.”

Mr McNamara also plans to take an aspiring astronomer to the second Flight to the Lights to view the aurora australis, or southern lights, next March and had so far raised $1700 of the $7730 required to get on the plane.