First of all, the bright (star)thing in the northeastern sky after sunset is…
Let’s look at some real stars now
In Maori, tahi, rua, toru means one, two, three.
- Soon after sunset, circumpolar AtuTAHI / Canopus is southwest of the point directly above you overhead. Tahi means One in Maori, suggesting that Atutahi is the chief of the stars – visible all night long is keeping an eye on the southern sky but Atutahi/Canopus is the 2nd brightest star of the night sky (well, after the Sun it would be the third but who can see other stars when the Sun is up?). Confused already?
- TakuRUA / Sirius, appears northwest of the zenith*. Rua means two in Maori and Takurua is one of the two wives of Ra, the Sun. For statistical (and confusing) purposes, Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. He’s the real number one!
- Below Takurua are bluish Puanga/Rigel and reddish Putara/Betelgeuse, the brightest stars in Orion. Between them is a vertical line made of the three stars, Tautoru. Toru means three in Maori and it’s the name given to Orion’s belt.
*Zenith (UK /ˈzɛnɪθ/, US /ˈziːnɪθ/) refers to an imaginary point directly “above” a particular location, on the imaginary celestial sphere.
So Atu-tahi – One, Taku-rua – Two, Tau-toru – Three
It’s a mnemonic I learned from Toa and I think it’s one of my favourites.
Equally spectacular is the fact that we can actually see (if we are lucky to have clear skies and no hills) the first (officially) four brightest stars of the night sky, now in May. That’s pretty awesome!
Sirius (1) / Canopus (2) / Alpha Centauri (3) / Arcturus (4)
Since I already talked about Sirius and Canopus (my favourite celestial dog and cat) – that is – brightest and second brightest, I’ll simply ‘point out’ (old joke – hehe) the third, Alpha Centauri, which is midway up the southeast sky (that is, after sunset). Alpha Centauri is one of the two pointer stars along with Beta Centauri. Alpha Centauri is also our closest neighbour and a spectacular double star for telescopes and binoculars. And… it points at Crux, the Southern Cross, which is southeast of the zenith, to the right of ‘The Pointers’, Alpha and Beta Centauri.
And fourth but not last, soon after dusk, Arcturus (4th) appears in the northeast, often twinkling red and green as the air breaks up its orange light. \
I feel so lucky to be deep inside the southern hemisphere because only from here these four stars are visible, let alone in the same time!
Orange Antares, marks the body of Scorpius, the Scorpion. For pakeha. For Māori, at this time of the year, the stars of what we know as Scorpius make Manaia Ki Te Rangi… , the celestial manaia – again I know this from Toa as we were talking about it he was pointing at his beautiful pounamu manaia. Indeed if you look at the shape of the constellation it does look like one. Manaia holds the centre of the Milky Way, our edgewise view of the galaxy, which is brightest in the southeast toward Scorpius and Sagittarius. The spiral arm of our galaxy can be traced up the sky past the Pointers and Crux, fading toward Sirius. Its nearby outer edge is by Orion, where the Milky Way is faintest.
Talking about galaxies, the Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC, are two small galaxies midway down the southern sky, easily seen by eye on a dark moonless night. If you use your peripheral vision, which means don’t try to stare directly at them, using the edge of your vision out of the corner of your eye will reveal more detail. It’s a trick we use in stargazing, and has to do with how our eyes are constructed. Night vision is mostly based on our rod cells (the ones responsible with detecting movement, which is also something we see very well with the edge of our vision).
Jupiter is in Virgo this time of the year which means that the brighter star to the right of Jupiter is Spica – Alpha Virginis (the brightest star in Virgo), a mere 10 light years from the Sun, and the 16th brightest star in the sky. Jupiter is also exactly opposite the Southern Cross which basically points at it with one end (and we all know already that with the other end points at Achernar). So the three (Jupiter/ Southern cross long axis/ Achernar) make an arch across the sky.
Once you’ve mastered the naked eye observing, it’s time to try the next level, binoculars. There is a point in learning the constellations first and the brightest stars, it will simply be easier to point the binoculars – should you decide to observe the sky with a pair. And believe you me, that’s one of the best things ever – better than the telescope for many reasons. First of all, we have two eyes so observing with binoculars will give such a beautiful image, a depth of field that is just spectacular. Then binoculars magnify objects, but not as much as telescopes. So you can see the beautiful lace of clusters in one image, which is sometimes breath taking. And last but not least, binoculars truly help with the training for telescope observing. They are, if you wish, like the tricycle to the bike.
What can we see in May’s night sky with a pair of binoculars?
Binoculars come in many shapes and forms, a great size for stargazing is 7 x 50 or 10 x 50. The first number is a measure of power, it means how much these binoculars magnify, in this case the 7 and the 10. The second number is the diameter of the objective (the big lenses at the front) in millimetres, in this case the 50. I really like binoculars, they are my favourite aids to observing the night sky because they are light, you can take them easily with you on trips, they don’t really require assembly and disassembly, no polar alignment, and visually are better than telescopes! With a tripod attached they are truly magnificent. Comets and some open star clusters are sometimes better observed with binoculars. We have two eyes, so binocular views are more spectacular in many regards than telescopic, because our brains interpret what we see, binoculars give depth of view as they engage both eyes in the process.
There are a few great objects that you could admire in binoculars. On the ecliptic, M44 – the Praesepe is an open cluster in Cancer. Known as the beehive, the open cluster swarms with stars. It’s really fuzzy when you look at it with the naked eye and binoculars reveal a beautiful lace of stars. Praesepes are as far as 577 light years and estimated to be about 730 million years old with an average magnitude of 3.5. Also in Cancer, M37, is another open cluster, one of the oldest known, almost 3.2 billion years.
Close to the area south of the triangle that marks Leo’s hips…M65, M66 and NGC 3628, which will be visible depending on the size of your binoculars they are also known as the “Leo Trio”. Also in Leo, M105 is an elliptical galaxy. Last but not least M96 another galaxy in Leo lies at about 35 million light years away. You can get a map and look for all these objects. Or, if everything else fails, simply take your binoculars and swipe the Milky Way from one edge to the other. You might not figure out exactly which objects you are looking at but you would definitely find amazing sights, especially in the region close to Carina. You will find there IC2602, NGC3114, NGC353, NGC2516 that are all open clusters then in Crux NGC4755 which is another open cluster, NGC2451 in Puppis, and IC2391 in Vela.
Lower down, Omega Centauri, is a globular cluster in Centaurus and in Scorpius, there are the Butterfly Cluster, M7 open cluster and NGC6231 open cluster.
What you can’t see:
- Aries (Sun in Aries from 19th of April to 14th of May) and
- Taurus (Sun in Taurus from 15th of May to 21st of June)
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 cool sky atlas: the Philips’s Night Sky Atlas
One of my bibles in terms of what to see in the night sky is Philips’s Night Sky Atlas, by Robin Scagell and with maps by Will Tirion. And every time someone asks me what telescope to buy and I ask them if they do have a pair of binoculars, if the answer is no, then I always say don’t buy a telescope if you have not looked at the sky with binoculars. Even if you only used them to locate objects that are too faint for the naked eye or hidden by light pollution. Some of the best views of the larger star clusters, bright nebulae and comets are best seen in binoculars.
May you enjoy clear and dark skies so that you can see the stars and remember that we are made of the same star dust as they are!
Kia Kaha and clear skies from Aotearoa New Zealand
Credits: Alan Gilmore and Toa Waaka
To hear me talking about the sky of May 2016 you can listen here to my korero (story) for the May 2016 podcast (Jodcast.net)