Te Tawhiti – the Pleiades are preparing for their journey to the underworld, leaving behind a doppelgänger, the Southern Pleiades. We will see M45 again at the end of June when they will reappear in the morning sky as Matariki. The Milky Way arches across the sky reaching zenith in the evening hours and there are some amazing binocular objects here. This is our Southern Hemisphere Night Sky in March, from the Middle of the Middle Earth, here in New Zealand. Just look up after sunset – pray that there is clear skies and you will see one of the most amazing night skies in the world.
The summer star party season just finishes here in New Zealand as the galactic centre is slowly coming back into the picture but there are still amazing views in the Carina-Southern Cross region and the Large Magellanic Cloud. So to get your own star party going, we prepared some instructions for looking up in March.
The brightest stars in the night sky are there in March. March is also the month when the day becomes equal to the night, as we are observing the March Equinox on Thursday, 21 of March. Oh yes it is indeed autumn here in Wellington and the days will become shorter than the nights after the equinox. At the beginning of the month, the Sun sets around 8:30 PM and earlier and earlier every day as we are heading towards the end of the month when it will set around 7:40 PM. At nightfall, half of our galaxy, the Milky Way, arches across the night sky from North to South, like the arm of the octopus. Wellington and New Zealand have a legendary octopus they talk about, Te Wheke o Muturangi. This octopus stole the bait and the fishooks of Kupe, who lived in Hawaiki; a chase across the Pacific Ocean followed and New Zealand was re-discovered again, as it was first found by Maui according to the Polynesians. Kupe’s wife, Hine-te-Aparangi saw a long cloud in the distance, a sign that land was near and she named it Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud. And cloudy it can get sometimes!
And talking about Māori starlore, at the fringe of our milky city of stars, Milky Way, on the north-western horizon, the Pleiades, the Shining Ones (Te Tawhiti) are preparing for the journey to the underworld. They are to disappear shortly behind the Sun and will stay there for a while. They will reappear in the morning sky in June after the longest night as Matariki, the eye of the Ariki, star cluster that marks the Māori New Year. Māori have different names for the same stars at different times throughout the year, and the Pleiades get to have three names throughout the year, in different seasons.
Also shining, Sirius and Canopus reach the meridian almost in the same time, at the beginning of the month around 9:30 PM, by the middle of the month, the same stars reach meridian around 8:30 PM, and 7:30 at the end of the month. It is really impressive how fast they shift in the sky, as the Earth revolves around the Sun, and we can see this movement, in just one month. To see them in the same spot, we need to look two hours earlier at the end of the month compared to the beginning of the month.
One is North of Zenith (overhead) and the other one south of Zenith. In the meantime the Southern Cross will be at the nine o’clock position on the South Celestial Circle. The Southern Cross is a circumpolar asterism, it never sets, nor rises from this latitude, only gets washed away by the light from the Sun. High in the sky, Canopus marks the midpoint between the center of our galaxy and its edge.
The brightest stars in the night sky are featuring from North To South – Aldebaran from Taurus, Castor and Pollux in Gemini, Canis Minor, Orion’s stars, Canis Major, these are north of overhead then south of overhead Canopus, Carinae stars: The False Cross, the Diamond Cross and the Southern Cross, and last but not least, Alpha and Beta Centauri, The Pointer Stars.
Staying on the southwest part of the sky and halfway through from the horizon is Achernar. Fomalhaut is now gone, grazing the southern horizon and on its way to the Northern Hemisphere. The Large Magellanic Cloud is high.
Some binocular objects:
From the horizon and travelling up the Milky Way, well sort of,
To the southern horizon:
first we come to M83, the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, a large face-on spiral at magnitude 7.09;
nearby is the Sombrero Galaxy at 8.12 magnitude; then closer to the Southern Cross is Centaurus A at 6.64 magnitude;
very close to Centaurus A is the huge globular cluster Omega Centauri; and we can’t look at Omega Centauri without also taking in the beautiful 47 Tucanae just by the Small Magellanic Cloud.
The Magellanic Clouds are exceptional binocular objects.
The Magellanic clouds are our neighbouring galaxies, circumpolar here in Wellington and always a little elusive to direct sight. The Magellanic clouds are the best training objects for averted vision, always try to see them with the edge of the field of view of your eye while pretending you’re looking at something else.
Towards the northern horizon we can see:
The Beehive Cluster in Cancer is another amazing object, very bright, and we are lucky to share that with the Northern Hemisphere. Then there is of course, M42 in Orion, which we also share with the Northern Hemispherians.
Also reasonably high in the sky, well high enough to see ok is the The Leo Triplet, made up of M65, M66 and NGC 3628 galaxies. The majestic globular cluster of M3 is at 20 degrees above the horizon in the Northern part of the sky. Also down in the lower part of the sky is the stunning Black Eye galaxy at 23 degrees above the horizon. Unfortunately the Virgo cluster is only 15 degrees above the horizon, so not really clearly visible.
The bottom star of the big dipper, Alkaid grazes the northern horizon early in the morning just before sunrise, precisely marking north. If we could only see it…, but there’s no chance, yet we know it’s there. And same goes for the Whirlpool galaxy – that gets nearly two degrees above the horizon.
If the Galaxy stretches almost from North to South in the evening sky, in the morning, it would almost have rotated to appear as if it’s lined up from East to West, with Jupiter and Saturn at the Eastern end and Sirius setting in the West.
As they prepare for their journey to the underworld at the fringe of our milky city of stars, on the north-western horizon, the Pleiades, the Shining Ones (Te Tawhiti) leave behind a doppelgänger here in the Southern Hemisphere, the look alike, fake twin that never leaves the sky. Higher up than the Southern Cross, the Diamond Cross carries this mirror image of the Pleiades called unsurprisingly the Southern Pleiades.
Circumpolar to Wellington, the Diamond Cross can also be found by climbing up the milky river, two thirds from the side and one third from the center this is where you will find the optical asterism (pattern of stars) of the diamond cross. At the eastern end of it, a pair of binoculars will reveal ‘the Southern Pleiades’, which at first sight look like the letter M to me.
Theta Carinae cluster, also called the “Southern Pleiades” has an astronomical resemblance to the famed northern star cluster M45 in Taurus. Even though the cluster is NOT dipper-shaped like the Pleiades, is also easily visible with the naked eye, (but best in binoculars), quite young… about 30 million years old and at almost the same distance from Earth (500 light years away). And just like M45, the Southern Pleiades is 15 light years across.
There’s a smorgasbord of amazing objects that you can in the Southern Sky, we are lucky here in Wellington to be able to share many of the objects that are famous in the Northern Hemisphere as well, the benefit of not being too far South. We hope you get a chance to get out there and enjoy feasting the sights of the night sky. If you’re in Wellington come up to Space Place, we’d love to show you around.
Clear and dark skies from Space Place at Carter Observatory here in the southern hemisphere.
Planets are almost gone from the evening sky, but look up in the early hours of the morning and you will see Jupiter, and later on, Saturn and Venus.
There is no decent planet in sight in the evening sky, just Mars and that is so close to the horizon that you can hardly distinguish it from the stars and by 10 AM it’s sunk into the underworld. So if you really want to see planets you will have to stay up late. The morning sky is however popular with the planets, as Jupiter rises around 1AM on the beginning of the month, (and at 11PM at the end of the month) followed by Saturn two hours later at 3AM and Venus at 4:00AM. Jupiter and Saturn are flanking the centre of the Milky Way this time of the year.
Listen to March 2019 podcast here – this is the Southern Hemisphere podcast fragment prepared for the Jodcast.