Story: Southern Cross

Māori likened it to an anchor or an aperture, and early European voyagers saw it as a cross: the Southern Cross constellation is a distinctive feature of the southern night sky. Usually depicted as four or five stars, it is in fact made up of thousands of stars.

Full story by Maggy Wassilieff
Main image: The Southern Cross and Pointers

The Short Story

A quick, easy summary
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The Southern Cross is a pattern of stars (constellation) in the Milky Way galaxy. The stars are visible in the southern hemisphere sky. It was named by 16th-cenury European explorers, who recognised the shape of a cross. Four bright stars form the outline, with another fainter star just below the crossbar.

Māori views

Māori tribes have different traditions about these stars. Some believed it was an anchor of a great sky canoe, or an opening in the sky that the winds blew through.

A national icon

The New Zealand flag displays the Southern Cross. The cross is also on the Australian flag (although it shows all five stars compared to New Zealand’s four). As well as being a national symbol, the Southern Cross is a name given to ships, planes, newspapers and companies.

Position

You can find the Southern Cross by the Pointers – two bright stars that point towards it. The cross changes position in the sky as the earth rotates. For example, on 1 April it is upright and high overhead, while on 1 October it is upside-down and low in the sky.

Because the Southern Cross can be seen all year round, people use it for navigation. It is especially useful for finding the direction south.

The stars of the cross

  • Alpha Crucis or Acrux, at the foot of the cross, is the brightest star of the Southern Cross. It is the 14th brightest star in the night sky.
  • Beta Crucis forms the eastern tip of the crossbar. It is a blue-white giant star.
  • Gamma Crucis, at the top of the cross, is a red-orange star.
  • Delta Crucis, at the western tip, is a blue-white giant star.
  • Epsilon Crucis is the faint fifth star. At 570 light years away, it is the furthest of the five stars from earth.
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How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff. 'Southern Cross', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9-Nov-12
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/southern-cross