Story: Night sky

The Milky Way is a vast white streak across the vault of the sky. New Zealand stargazers will find that it contains features unique to viewers in the southern hemisphere – the Southern Cross, Coal Sack and Jewel Box twinkle only here. And the upside-down outlook means that constellations can appear quite different from the shapes for which they were named.

Full story by John Field and Maggy Wassilieff
Main image: The Milky Way galaxy

The Short Story

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New Zealand’s night sky

Some of the stars and planets of the southern hemisphere night sky cannot be seen in the northern hemisphere. There are often clear skies over much of New Zealand, and it is possible to see the Milky Way and other galaxies. The most recognisable constellation (pattern of stars) is the Southern Cross.

A changing view

As the earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun, the view of the night sky changes. Each evening, stars seem to rise and set, or they circle around a point. From season to season, new regions of the sky become visible.

An upside-down view

Many constellations were named in the northern hemisphere, after shapes such as a bull, bear or giant. But from New Zealand they look upside-down, and often it is hard to make out these shapes.

Stars

Stars of the southern hemisphere sky include the Southern Cross and the two Pointers. Nearby, the Coal Sack is a star nursery, where young stars are forming from gas and dust. The Jewel Box is a colourful cluster of about 50 stars.

Seasonal stars

Some stars can be seen from New Zealand only during one season. In winter, the long, S-shaped Scorpius (the Scorpion) is in the widest and brightest part of the Milky Way. The Pleiades (Matariki to Māori) appear in late May or early June, and signal the Māori New Year.

In summer, Orion comes into view. The ancient Greeks imagined the constellation as Orion the giant, but in New Zealand it looks like a saucepan.

Galaxies

Earth is in the Milky Way galaxy, known to Māori as Te Ikaroa. It can be seen as a vast white streak overhead, and is made of millions of distant stars.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are neighbouring galaxies. Like the Milky Way, they contain gas, dust, and countless stars.

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How to cite this page:

John Field and Maggy Wassilieff. 'Night sky', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Nov-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/night-sky