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What to Look for When Watching the Stars in New Zealand

Daniel Rood - Tourism NZ

Astronomical features seen from New Zealand.

New Zealand might be known as the “Land of the Long White Cloud”, but on a clear night, the stargazing is nothing short of astonishing. New Zealand is home to an International Dark Sky Reserve, meaning that it has some of the clearest skies in the world for stargazing. On top of that, stargazers from the Northern Hemisphere will find a very different night sky in the Southern Hemisphere displaying astronomical features only seen when south of the Tropic of Capricorn. We’ll go through some of the highlights seen when watching the stars in New Zealand in this quick guide.

While you’re here, you might also be interested in 5 Stargazing Sites in New Zealand and 9 Tips For Seriously Good Southern Lights Viewings.

5 Interesting Facts about the stars in New Zealand

While we try to fill this article with interesting facts about the stars you can see from New Zealand, here are a few other quick facts that didn’t make the cut for the main article.

  • The Pleiades star cluster, known as Matariki in the Maori language, marks the Maori New Year when it is visible in the sky between late-May/early-June. Learn more in What is Matariki & The Maori New Year
  • New Zealand is also known as a top destination to see the electromagnetic phenomenon known as the Southern Lights/Aurora Australis. Learn more in The Best Times and Locations to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand.
  • New Zealand has an area that is protected from producing more light pollution, known as an International Dark Sky Reserve. Find out more in What is a Dark Sky Reserve?
  • The stars were what early Maori used to navigate the Pacific Ocean on their first voyages to New Zealand
  • The Eta Carinae Nebula seen through telescopes in New Zealand is a magnificent sight said to shine with the luminosity of four million suns. 
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Daniel Rood - Tourism NZ

Milky Way

One of the most prominent features seen on a clear night in New Zealand is the Milky Way. The band of light that we see stretching across the sky is our own disc-shaped galaxy. The view we get from the Southern Hemisphere is looking at the galaxy edge-on.

Part way through the view we have of the Milky Way is a darker section of the sky which is a cloud of cosmic dust about 600 light years away. This cloud is known as the Coal Sack and located next to the Southern Cross (see below).

European Southern Observatory on Wikipedia

The Southern Cross

Also known as Crux, The Southern Cross is our nearest stars from the sun about four light years away. The Southern Cross and the two bright “pointer” stars next to it are used to find the South Celestial Pole where the South Pole points to the sky. Drawing a line to the horizon from The Southern Cross marks due south.

Beside The Southern Cross, it’s sometimes possible to see the Coal Sack, which is a dark section obscuring views of the stars behind it (see above).

European Southern Observatory on Wikipedia

The Large & Small Clouds of Magellan

When there isn’t too much artificial light or moonlight, it’s possible to see these two dwarf galaxies with the naked eye. At 170,000 and 200,000 light years away, the Large and Small Clouds of Magellan are thought to be satellites of the Milky Way.

Part of the galaxies is the Tarantula Nebula, which is a huge star-forming region lit up by some of the hottest and brightest stars that have been discovered. Measuring over 1,000 light years across, this is the largest known stellar nursery.

European Southern Observatory on Wikipedia

Omega Centauri & 47 Tucanae Globular Cluster

What looks like faint and fuzzy stars to the naked eye can look amazing through telescopes or even binoculars! Globular clusters are thought to be collapsing remnants of early proto-galaxies now falling toward their own gravitational centre. Over billions of years has resulted in dense clusters of stars, and the Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae clusters are thought to have more than a million stars each.

Globular clusters are the oldest things possible for us to see with our own eyes!

European Southern Observatory on Wikipedia

The Jewel Box

Also lovingly named NGC4755, The Jewel Box is a very bright cluster about 6,000 light years away from Earth. While to the naked eye they appear as a faint star beside The Southern Cross, looking at The Jewel Box through a telescope will reveal different colours of blue, orange, yellow and green hues. The colours are caused by different surface temperatures of the stars.

These are among some of the youngest stars that we can easily see from New Zealand at only seven million years old.

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The Moon

Ok, so the Moon can be seen from everywhere in the world, but still, it’s the most prominent feature of the night’s sky when stargazing in New Zealand. If you can’t see the stars when in one of New Zealand’s top stargazing locations, then it’s likely because the moon is too bright.

On the plus side, it is possible to see the mountains, valleys and deep craters of the moon when looking through a telescope. Although these were originally thought to be a reflection of the Earth’s ocean and land features, we now know they are lava plains from ancient volcanoes that spouted on the moon.

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