Mark Dreams Of The Southern Skies Down Under


Constellation Crux photo by Christopher J Picking in New Zealand. Acrux is at the bottom of the Cross. Used with permission

The two hemispheres of Earth are quite different as anyone can see on the globe of our planet. But what is hard to grasp is the difference in the night sky when seen from America as compared to Australia.

And oh, how I yearn to see those celestial treasures that are unique to the night skies of “Down Under,” as I am still a Southern Sky virgin. Oh, I’ve been to first AND second base with the celestial bodies of the south. But just a few times when sneaking down to the Florida Keys to glimpse the Southern Cross or bright star Canopus just above the Atlantic Ocean.

Position Is Important

But to make it to third base and home plate in the Southern skies I have to get closer to the equator.  That’s so I can see the titillating sights of a star about to explode, Eta Carina; the two closest galaxies that glow like giant cotton balls, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds; and the beautiful youthful stars of the “Jewel Box” in the Crux, the tiny Southern Cross.

Of course, a stargazer in Australia—or South Africa or South America—might be dreaming of celestial sights of the Northern Hemisphere. Like the Andromeda Galaxy, the Great Nebula of Orion and the stars of the Big Dipper.

In outer space there is no real up or down, north or south.  These directions are arbitrary designations to give our human mind a point of reference. Seeing the stars to the extreme north and south of our globe is a matter of latitude.  That’s the distance one is between the equator and the pole. Our Mountain Empire of Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City, Tennessee is at latitude 36 degrees north of the equator.

Being ‘Down Under’

The big city of Sydney on the eastern shores of Australia is 34 degrees south of the equator, so the invisible part of the sky they never see is comparable to ours. A stargazer in Sydney, Australia has never seen the Big Dipper asterism, and when they see Orion it is upside down.  Just like I’ve never seen Octans and its faint stars around the Celestial South Pole.


Article author, Mark Marquette

There are places in the southern borders of America where you can see some of the Southern sky spectacles—like the Florida Keys, which are just 21 degrees from the equator and a popular spot for amateur astronomers.

From the Keys, I’ve seen some of the Southern sights, but they are always compromised low near the horizon.

A Southern Gem

Stargazers flock to the Keys to get a glimpse of the smallest constellation, the five stars that make up the Southern Cross.  And inside is the “Jewel Box,” a beautiful stellar crib of baby stars.

In Sydney, Australia, the Southern Cross is high in their sky for eight months of the year, which is weird for me to think about. I may have seen it for about an hour in clear skies as it flops above the Atlantic Ocean that hides the South Pole.

From my Tennessee home, my stargazing buddies and I love to go to the many mountain and lake places that afford a dark, light pollution free night. Such a dark observing place is White Top Mountain above Damascus, Virginia.

In a gap between mountains, we’ve caught glimpses of southern sky objects as they move by.  In the Spring we look for the beautiful star cluster Omega Centauri.

But it’s just a fuzzy blob in the telescope from Damascus, Virginia. In Sydney, Australia, the Omega globular cluster in the constellation Centaurus is high in their August sky, a spectacular orb of thousands of stars in the Winter night. The Southern skies have their own mythology, but not as rich as the constellation tales in the Northern Hemisphere and its majority of the human population.

Salty Tales

Prominent in the stories of the Southern skies are the tales of sailors, mainly the domain of Jason and the Argonauts.   The great ship of the mythical adventurer was broken up into constellations by the mid-1700s astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille, who spent two years surveying the Southern Hemisphere skies from 1750-52.

These Winter nights of August in Sydney, Australia you have in the night sky Carina (The Keel), Vela (The Sail), and Puppis (The Stern). Also covering a large part of the Southern Winter night is Centaurus, the famous Centaur, Chiron, who plays large in Greek mythology.  In this constellation is the closest star to Earth, alpha, or Rigil Kentaurus, the food of the beast. Alpha Centauri is 4.3 Light Years away, and the subject of many science fiction plots.

The Exploration Of Our Southern Skies

Southern hemisphere skies offer dazzling spectacles for night viewing, some of which cannot be seen from the northern hemisphere

The Southern skies were a big mystery until the 1th Century when three astronomers committed some serious observing time and cataloged the stars and their wonders.  The great English astronomer Edmond Halley was just 20 years old when he organized an expedition to the South Atlantic island of St., Helena to study the Southern sky for a year in 1677.  French astronomer Lacaille spent 1750-52 at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa measuring the position of 10,000 stars.

But the longest survey was by John Herschel, son of the great astronomer William, and Britain’s most prominent scientist of the time. Herschel spent 1834-38 at the Cape of Good Hope, and recorded 5,000 nebulae, galaxies and star clusters in his New General Catalog, still used today.

Voyages Of Magellan

The great explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed to the coasts of New Zealand and Australia in the 1520s and was one of the first to record the two giant star clouds that bear his name.  Magellan really didn’t “discover” them as they are known to the Polynesian natives of the area and seen by many explorers. One galaxy cloud spans 16 Moon diameters, the other 8 Moon diameters, so they are easy to see!

Mapping Constellations

Our modern 88 constellations both North and South come from the original 48 introduced by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in 150 AD. Mapmakers needed more detailed sky maps for sailors, and more constellations were devised by German Johann Bayer in the early 1600s and Poland’s Johannes Hevelius in the 1650s.

The Frenchman Lacaille added to the Southern Hemisphere 14 new—and boring—constellations, named after tools of scientists and artists.  This whole arbitrary naming of our 88 constellations was officially adopted in 1930 by the International Astronomical Union, astronomy’s governing body.

Early charts and maps depicting Magellan’s voyages

One other big difference in the celestial skies of North and South: Polaris is known as the North Star, just under a degree away from the true point in the sky our axis points to, while in the south there is no star near the true South Pole. That imaginary point of Earth’s axis is in the borders of the faint constellation Octans, an obscure sky measuring tool like a sextant. To find true South, several guide stars are used for reference.

A Common Sight

Every night looking South you see the same polar stars month after month—Musca the fly; Apus the Bird of Paradise; Pavo the Peacock; Tucana the Toucan; Volans the Flying Fish and Mensa, commemorating Table Mountain in Cape of Good Hope, South Africa (where the unimaginative Lacaille observed the sky).

These Southern constellations around the South Pole are without many bright stars or celestial wonders, making the region quite dull.  That’s a contrast from the familiar patterns of the Big and Little Dipper, and the star clusters in Cassiopeia and Perseus.

Serious Questions

All this North Pole/South Pole stuff leaves one other important question.  What about Santa Claus? Well, yes, he is a North Pole dweller, but his sleigh is equipped with extra food to energize those flying reindeer to the home of every boy and girl in the world.

Santa just has to know how to dress.  He’s in that frumpy red suit when in the Northern Hemisphere. But earlier at the beginning of Christmas night, Santa was in his beach shorts and tank top—as it’s a bloody hot Summertime in Australia’s December!

Article Credit: Mark Marquette. Facebook/stargazer. Amateur Astronomer since 1963. Mark hails form the Northern Hemisphere and is a new contributor to Astro-Space News

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