The sky of June – The Rising of the Galaxy

 

To learn about Matariki, the Māori New Year (Te Tau Hou), click here.

The evening sky in June

One year after I came to New Zealand (where I felt that for the first time in my life I was able to see the stars) I got invited to Stonehenge Aotearoa to do a talk. As I was talking through the questions after the presentation at the end, Richard Hall stormed in and in a very serious voice interrupted my diatribe and said: “You must go out! Now!”

Out I went and nothing prepared me for what I saw that night. On the pitch dark sky of Wairarapa, with luscious hills that hold the horizon in sweet curves that rest the eye, a luminous whirlpool of stars was erupting from east. Silver river of stars, one of its arms was meandering the eastern horizon in oval arched loops like an octopus’s arm that passed a Southern Cross marking the 12 o’clock position on the celestial time keeper of the south. The galactic arm was thinning down towards the western horizon and righteously so as the further we go from Scorpius and Sagittarius, we are actually looking towards the outskirts of our galaxy, where fewer stars venture. I stood there in silence watching the slow rising of the Galaxy and I realised that it was for the first time in my life when I was truly seeing it with my eyes.

Then… I met Mark Gee, his pictures of the night sky have changed and inspired millions of people but that is a different story.

So for me, even though I was roaming the hills and shores of Aotearoa since 2005 with my camera in search for stars (while he was safely tucked in bed – I’m bragging), I have taken a break from astrophotography after my gorgeous daughter was born in 2007. Back in 2005 everyone who was anyone had a telescope and was trying their hands at deep sky astrophotography. I “only” had the Ruth Crisp telescope from Carter Observatory that we used to take pictures through but I could not be at the observatory non stop because they had a closing time too so I ended up doing landscape astrophotography out of “force-majeure”. But it was fun and I have learned heaps.

Coming back to Mark Gee, he has better camera, better gear and can sleep in the car while he takes his pics. Try do that with a toddler! Mama is gone for the night to take pictures of the sky, will be back in time for breakfast! But not being able to often (boldly go) and freeze along with my camera in the brisk air of the night doesn’t mean that I can’t talk about it. In fact, my many thousand hours of stargazing and planetarium teaching might finally come in handy. One of my friends who is learning the ropes into astrophotography came to me the other day a bit frustrated that she could not find information about what exactly you can take pictures of, by month of the year. And then I realised, that instead of dryly presenting elevations, azimuth and zeniths, in my star talks I could talk about the spectacular skyscape that New Zealand is by night. After all, I decided to make New Zealand my home after I have irrevocably fallen in love with this sky.

So… this blog is going to be astrophotographer friendly.

The Milky Way

Starting with June now is a good time to start shooting for the centre of the galaxy.

Both Scorpius and Sagittarius, which point towards the centre of the Milky Way, are quite high in the sky, in the evening of June, at approximately 45 degrees above the horizon. Turn your camera east and you will “see” it. The Galaxy itself is thicker in that region and the reason why we see a band instead of a disc is of course because we are observing it from inside. This means we can only see the edgewise view of it. The thick hub of the galaxy is 30,000 light years away in Sagittarius. As the night progresses, the centre of the Milky Way flies high in the sky and the galaxy starts to look like a celestial arch, a nocturnal rainbow where the colours are made by the stars shining inside it. 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.

Mark Gee has a spectacular picture of how the galaxy centre rising looks like, click here to see it. You can take a picture like this in the very early hours of the night. Make sure you also consider the crepuscule, the twilight as Google points out to me as I’m looking for this great link from timeanddate.

To start with astrophotography it will be all trial in error but if I learned how to do it anyone can, all you need is hot chocolate.

Twilight occurs when Earth’s upper atmosphere scatters and reflects sunlight which illuminates the lower atmosphere. Astronomers define the three stages of twilight – civil, nautical, and astronomical – on the basis of the Sun’s elevation which is the angle that the geometric center of the Sun makes with the horizon. (Time and Date)

Photopills is a great little phone app that I highly recommend if you wish to plan your shots. Especially that I have personally met one of the founders, Rafael Pons and interviewed him recently for Milky-Way.Kiwi

Now while you are waiting for your 20-30 seconds exposure to finish, you might as well do some scouting. 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. Māori 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.

The Clouds of Magellan

The two 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%.

Some bright stars

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 Māori 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. Let’s take a ride along the Milky Way, to make sense of the stars. Starting from the Eastern horizon, Sagittarius is the first constellation 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 Māori (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 … but it is mostly known as the fishing hook of Maui …. the Matau a Maui (the other name that Scorpius has here). I have often thought that 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. Māori 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. Omega Centauri is a super-awesome star cluster for deep sky and deep sky astrophotography. There is a competition here in New Zealand, which one is better – Omega Centauri or 47 Tucanae? I will let you be the judge of that, I have chosen a long time ago my winner!

Crux and Alpha Centauri (3rd brightest star of the night sky)

– 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.

Sco-CenMap
Scorpius – Centaurus Association (Roberto Mura)

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

Canopus (second brightest star of the night sky)

voyager2_largeCanopus is around 300 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 (drumroll… the brigthest star of the night 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. 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 (fourth brightest star of the night sky)

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.


What you can’t see:

yes there are starry “things” you can’t see this time of the year for the good reason that they are now behind the Sun (or on direct line of sight with the Sun).

  • 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?

Te-Waka-o-Tama-Rereti
The Sky of Matariki Dawn – Photo: John Drummond
The Pleiades/Matariki star cluster will be appearing in the late June dawn twilight. To see it you will need to learn how to count in Māori : First locate Atutahi – in the dawn sky it will be floating low in the southeastern sky. Tahi in Māori means One. Then follow along the Milky Way, you will see blue Takurua, Sirius. Rua means two in Māori . Then on the same line, when they will become parallel with the horizon, the three stars from Orion’s belt, Tautoru. In Māori, 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.

Matariki sky.png

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.

Pleiades_large.jpg

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.

When is Matariki?

This year, in 2017, the celebrations of the Māori New Year, Matariki, start just after the 24th of June and last until the next new Moon, on the 23rd of July.

Since I arrived here in 2005, I learned a lot about Matariki but the most extraordinary piece of information I heard was that Māori have different names for the same stars in different combinations at different times of the year. I mean, really… ? Why?

We barely have different names for it across cultures (M45 – the Pleiades/ Subaru/ The Hen and Chicken/) and these people have at least three names for it. Only to get my head around that took me about 5 years…  I spoke many times about biases but this probably was my biggest UNLEARNING (yes unlearning the sky as I knew it from home) experience, the Māori night sky of Aotearoa.  I wrote about Matariki here if you wish to learn more about it or I dare you to wake up and come to Tangi Te Keo on the morning of 27 June when together with the Society of Māori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART) we are holding a dawn ceremony. On top of Mount Victoria – Wellington that is.

What is Matariki?

After I arrived in Aotearoa in 2005, Matariki was the very first Māori stellar custom that I got acquainted with and I will always remember feeling both curious and somewhat uneasy while attending my very first dawn ceremony, on top of One Tree Hill, in Auckland, in 2006. It was a crisp morning and the Milky Way surrounded the city like a mist or maybe it was the mist and the light pollution but it felt beautiful. I was trying to decipher the new (to me) locations of the stars listening to strange new words that I had never heard before – in Māori. I will always also remember that I felt included in that, and welcomed.

Matariki is the Māori way to mark a new cycle of life, a New Year, a new beginning, a new rotation around the Sun as we say today. Most cultures of the world have celebrations for rebirth and new cycles and many of them use the appearance of certain stars to remember it. Probably the cultures that experience seasonal vegetation bursts are the best at keeping the score of some sort of middle of wintertime, for various reasons. I have never believed tho what some people wrote that my ancestors were measuring springtime by the stars. Really, could they just not see when the leaves started to emerge from the ground? And so with middle of wintertime, Matariki is a celebration of light when light is gone. As my friend Mike Tana says, we forget sometimes to stop and celebrate our achievements but this is the best time of the year to do it… not too much one can do in wintertime when the days are so short.

Being a lunar festival, it falls at different times each year as you probably have noticed that the phases of the Moon don’t really coincide with the calendar month. 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 Wellington, probably is safe to say that we look for the first new Moon to appear, after the longest night. The new Moon falls on the 24th of June this year. So any time after that is good to go and have a look at these stars and feel like it’s New Year. Māori being the fluid culture that it is, it provisioned for an entire month to fulfil the celebrations, to allow people to reset their souls and do as they pleased as the month of Matariki was a time when mere mortals could mingle with chiefs without being reprimanded – or so I heard. I look forward to this year’s celebrations and I wish you in advance, for the new year that will start soon,  Nga Mihi o Te Tau Hou!

 

More stuff:

Listen do the 2016  June night sky podcast here.