The beginner’s guide to star watching in New Zealand

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22 January 2021

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Head outside with the family and look up! Astronomer Nalayini Davies shares her expert tips for spotting stars, planets, galaxies and constellations.

The night sky is an amazing sight. Only when we see it on a cloudless night, can we look upon our near neighbours in the universe and gain a sense of Earth and humankind’s place in that vast black ocean. Seeing the stars is awesome but knowing what you see makes it even more enjoyable.

Steps to good star watching

STEP 1 Choose a night when there are few clouds in the sky. The fewer clouds the better.

STEP 2 Choose a night when there is no moon in the sky. The moon reflects sunlight (what we all know as moonlight) and this hinders your view of the stars. The moon, of course, is a wonderful object to view, but if you want to see the stars in all their glory, go out on nights when the moon rises very late and has greatly waned (become much smaller after a full moon).

STEP 3 Choose a viewing spot where there is little or no artificial light in the vicinity.

STEP 4 If you are a total beginner, ask somebody who knows the night sky to point out the main objects to you. Alternatively, you could get a star spotting app (such as SkySafari or Stellarium) for your smartphone, or try the traditional method of using a star chart.

How to use a star chart

Go outside with your star chart. Instead of looking down on it as if reading a book, raise the chart above your head, turn your body to face the south, turn the chart so the south pointer on the chart points to the south, and now the chart will indicate where all the stars printed on it are. There is a star chart for every month.

Star chart illustration
The chart shows the celestial objects easily visible at around 11pm at the start of the month and 9pm by the end of the month.

What to look out for

There is an infinite number of stars to see in a dark night sky, but here are some of the objects we recommend you look out for in the January sky:

CONSTELLATIONS AND ASTERISMS The prominent summer constellation Orion dominates the night sky while Canis Major and Taurus are also up and clear. Constellation Crux (the Southern Cross) and asterisms the Diamond Cross and False Cross and the Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) can also be seen.

STAR CLUSTERS The open star cluster Pleiades (known to us as Matariki) is easily observable (and spectacular through binoculars) as a knot of seven-plus stars. Meanwhile, the famous Southern Hemisphere globular cluster Omega Centauri (located close to Crux) can be seen through binoculars like a fuzzy snowball in the sky.

STARS Sirius (the brightest star in the night sky) and Canopus (the second brightest) are easily located along with the brightest stars in Orion (Rigel and Betelgeuse). The stars making up the Southern Cross (Acrux, Becrux and Gacrux) also rank among the brightest we can see.

PLANETS Only Mars, bright orange in colour, is easily visible in the night sky this January. It is not shown on the star chart but can be spotted overhead in the west following the same path through the sky taken by the sun and the moon (a path known as the ecliptic).

GALAXIES The ever-present dwarf galaxies, the fuzzy Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) are high in the southern sky. Meanwhile, the Andromeda galaxy is visible through a telescope but remains very low in the northern sky.

A star watcher’s wish

Hopefully you’ll have many enjoyable star-watching experiences. I’ll sign off now with two words of hope each true star watcher wishes every other star watcher: clear skies!

Dark sky NZ philosophy

Mā tewhakatau, kamōhio
When we are shown, we come to know

Mā te mōhio, ka mārama
When we know, we come to understand

Mā te mārama, ka ora ai tātou
When we understand, we all achieve wellness

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