The sky of June – Preparing for the arrival of Matariki

Listen do the 2016  June night sky podcast here.

What is Matariki?

Matariki is a lunar and a local celebration, thus it falls at different times each year. Its exact timing might vary with the location as well because the tohunga tatai arorangi had to see the cluster before declaring the New Year. In 2016, according to the old traditions, Matariki will be from 4th of July, when the first new Moon appears after the longest night, until the 3rd of August, the next new Moon.

The evening sky in June

Brightest stars lit up the night sky once again. Orange Antares is the brightest star in Scorpio, rising each day higher and higher in the sky. Low in the west at dusk, Sirius /Takurua, the brightest true star twinkles blue settings around 9 pm mid-month. It will appear again in the morning sky to help point at Matariki. Canopus Atutahi, the chief of Maori stars and the second brightest star, is in the southwest. Atutahi is a chief because it can always be seen in the sky, it is a ‘circumpolar’ star: one that never sets but goes around in circles. As usual, I will take you on a ride along the Milky Way, to make sense of the stars. We can do this in the Southern Hemisphere because we can still see the Milky Way here with the naked eye.

The Milky Way is brightest and broadest in the southeast toward Scorpius and Sagittarius.  It remains bright but narrower through Crux and Carina then fades in the western sky. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy. The thick hub of the galaxy, 30 000 light years away, is in Sagittarius.

Starting from the Eastern horizon, Sagittarius is high above the horizon, it’s brighter stars making ‘the British teapot’. Tea flows upwards as the teapot is showing up in the sky spout first and handle last.

Next is Scorpius.

Antares

Antares or Rehua is marking the scorpion’s heart. In Maori (this time of the year) the asterism is Manaia Ki Te Rangi, the guardian of the heavens, which is one of the three names that Scorpius has here. This is also the the zenith asterism of Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud … the fishing hook of Maui …. the Matau a Maui. Maybe this land is so big compared to the other Pacific islands that it does need an entire asterism to mark its position in the sky…

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Antares

Rehua is a red giant star. Maori associate it with blood as well and rightfully so, red giants are dying stars, wringing the last of the thermo-nuclear energy from their cores.  Antares will end in a spectacular supernova explosion in a few million years.

Antares is about 600 light years away and 19 000 times brighter than the sun. Red giants are much bigger than the sun but much cooler, hence the orange-red colour. Though hundreds of times bigger than the Sun, Antares is only about 20 times the Sun’s mass or weight.  Most of the star’s mass is in its hot dense core.  The rest of the star is thin gas.

Following the Milky Way, Centaurus holds Alpha and BetaCentauri, often called ‘The Pointers’ because they point at Crux. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. Beta Centauri and many of the stars in Crux are hot, extremely bright blue-giant stars hundreds of light years away. Omega Centauri, the giant globular cluster is also in that region of the sky.

Crux

– the Southern Cross, is south of the zenith. The stars of Crux and Beta Centauri are members of a group of stars that formed together then scattered. The group is called the Scorpius-Centaurus Association.

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Scorpius – Centaurus Association (Roberto Mura)

Lower down in the sky, past the Diamond Cross and the False Cross is

Canopus

voyager2_largeCanopus is around three hundred light years away and 13,000 times brighter than the sun and almost of the same spectral type as the Sun. That’s why is used as a luminous beacon for there is no star in our stellar vicinity to be as special as Canopus. I fell in love with it when I found out that is on board the Voyagers, as a positioning aid. In fact many star craft carry a special camera called Canopus Star Tracker.

Before the magnetic compasses, Canopus was also considered the south star and navigation was made based on its position. And of course Canopus was the navigator of Argo Navis, and you can find it inside of the modern constellation of Carina, which used to be part of Argo Navis as well.

Sirius

Low in the west at dusk Sirius, Takurua, the brightest true star twinkles blue settings around 9 pm mid-month. It will appear again in the morning sky to help point at Matariki. Sirius/ Takurua is the Zenith star of Tahiti and it was used so by the Polynesians. Sirius appears bright both because it is 20 times brighter than the sun, and because it is relatively close at nine light years*.

Arcturus

Opposite Canopus, Arcturus is a lone bright star in the northeast, in the constellation of Bootes. Polynesians call it Hōkūleʻa, the “Star of Joy”. Arcturus is the Zenith star of the Hawaiian islands. Its orange light often twinkles red and green when it is low in the sky.  It sets in the northwest in the morning hours.

Milky Way

A scan along the Milky Way with binoculars will find many clusters of stars and some glowing gas clouds. Relatively nearby dark clouds of dust and gas dim the light of distant stars in the Milky Way. They look like holes and slots in the Milky Way. There is a well-known dark cloud called The Coalsack by the Southern Cross. Maori call it te Patiki, the flounder. It is around 600 light years away. The dust, more like smoke particles in size, comes off old red stars. These clouds eventually coalesce into new stars.

Then, there are the Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC, in the lower southern sky, are luminous patches easily seen by eye in a dark sky.  They are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away.  The Large Cloud is about 5% the mass of the Milky Way; the Small Cloud is about 3%.


What you can’t see:

  • Taurus (Sun in Taurus from 15th of May to 21st of June) and
  • Gemini (Sun in Gemini from 22nd of June until 20th of July)

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Zodiacal  band

This is the Zodiacal band, an awesome drawing by Eugene Georgiades. Since one thousand years ago, when people stopped taking precession into account, the zodiacal constellations have shifted. Yes, we are once again not what we think we are. Here is an excellent site with more details about your real star sign.


Featured sky: The morning sky

Because the Sun is in the constellation of Taurus, which holds the Pleiades as well, you cannot see the star cluster until later in the month of June.

When is Matariki?

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The Sky of Matariki Dawn – Photo: John Drummond
The Pleiades/Matariki star cluster will be appearing in the dawn twilight. To see it you will need to learn how to count in Maori: First locate Atutahi – in the dawn sky it will be floating low in the southeastern sky. Tahi in Maori means One. Then follow along the Milky Way, you will see blue Takurua, Sirius. Rua means two in Maori. Then on the same line, when they will become parallel with the horizon, the three stars from Orion’s belt, Tautoru. In Maori, toru means three. Tahi, Rua, Toru. One, two, three. If you join Takurua with Tautoru and extend the line to the north, just passing Taumata Kuku (the Hyades and red Aldebaran, that look like a triangle), and follow just a little bit more to the north, you will find Matariki.

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At 444 light years away from Earth, the Matariki stars are hot, young and blue, and with the naked eye you can see six of them; with a pair of binoculars you can see many more.

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The best view is with smaller magnification binoculars, as they can fit more stars in the field of view. The Pleiades, or Messier 45, are about 100 million years old, being born just before the dinosaurs went extinct on Earth. The light from the Pleiades as we see it today left the cluster almost at the same time as Galileo was pointing his telescope to the heavens.

For the new year that will start soon,  Nga Mihi o Te Tau Hou!