The latitude of 30° South is the magic latitude on Earth for seeing the Milky Way.
From that region of the world – southern Australia, central South America, southern Africa – the centre of the Galaxy passes overhead, and you see the view at top.
You see the galactic core glowing brightly at the zenith, and the arms of the Milky Way stretching off to the horizon on either side of the core – to Aquila at left, for the northern half of the Galaxy, and to Carina at right, for the southern half of the Galaxy. That area of the Galaxy is always below the horizon for viewers at northern latitudes.
The image below focuses in on just the southern portion of the Milky Way, framing what in Australia is called the “Dark Emu,” a constellation made of the dark lanes along the Milky Way, from his head at right in Crux, to his tail at left in Scutum.
This is the most amazing region of the Milky Way, and is worth the trip south of the equator just to see, by lying back and looking up. You can easily see we live in a vast Galaxy, and not in the centre, but off to one side looking back at the core glowing overhead.
I would say there are three sky sights that top the list for spectacle:
• A bright all-sky aurora
• A total solar eclipse
• and the naked eye view of the Galaxy with its centre overhead and its arms across the sky from horizon to horizon.
I’ve checked off two this year! One more to go in August!
From the southern hemisphere the Moon appears “upside-down” and higher each night in the northern sky as it waxes from crescent to Full.
These are scenes from the last week as the Moon rose higher into the evening sky as seen from Australia.
A northerner familiar with the sky would look at these and think these are images of the waning Moon at dawn in the eastern sky.
But no, these are of the waxing Moon (the phases from New to Full) with the Moon in the evening sky.
From the southern hemisphere the ecliptic – the path of the planets – and the path of the Moon arcs across the northern sky. So as the Moon waxes from New to Full phase it appears to the right of the Sun, which still sets in the west. The world still spins the same way down under!
So the Moon appears upside down and with the crescent phase the “wrong” way for us northerners.
This panorama taken April 4 sweeps from northwest to southeast, but looks north at centre, to capture the scene at sunset of the waxing 8-day gibbous Moon in the northern sky as seen from the southern hemisphere.
The angle between the Sun and Moon is just over 90°, shown here by the angle between the right-angle arms of the wharf, pointed to the west at left, to the north at centre, and to the east at right.
The Sun has set just north of west, while the Moon sits 13° east of due north. The Earth’s shadow rises as the blue arc at far right to the east opposite the Sun.
The next night, April 5, I shot this panorama from Philip Island south of Melbourne. Again, it shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the north far to the right of the setting Sun in the west (at left).
Getting used to the motion of the Sun and Moon across the northern sky, and the Moon appearing on the other side of the Sun than we are used to, is one of the challenges of getting to know the southern sky.
Things just don’t appear where nor move as you expect them to. But that’s one of the great delights of southern star gazing.
This post shows that same area of sky (here at top) also setting into the west. But that’s the only area of sky familiar to northern hemisphere stargazers.
Everything below Orion and Sirius is new celestial territory for the northern astronomer. Welcome to the fabulous southern hemisphere sky.
And to the autumn sky – From home it is spring. From here in the southern hemisphere summer is giving way to cool nights of autumn.
Straight up, at centre, is the faint Milky Way area containing the constellations of Puppis and Vela, formerly in the constellation of Argo Navis.
Below, the Milky Way brightens in Carina and Crux, the Southern Cross, where dark lanes divide the Milky Way.
At right, the two patches of light are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of our Milky Way.
The bright object at left is Jupiter rising over the Tasman Sea.
I shot this 360° panorama on March 31, 2017 from Cape Conran on the Gippsland Coast of Victoria, Australia, at a latitude of 37° South.
I’ve turned the panorama so Orion appears as we’re used to seeing him, head up and feet below. But here in the southern hemisphere the image below despicts what he looks like, as he dives headfirst into the west in the evening twilight.
The bright object here is the waxing crescent Moon, here in Taurus. Taurus is below Orion, while Sirius (the bright star at top) and the stars of Canis Major are above Orion.
This view above takes in more of Canis Major. Note the Pleiades to the right of the Moon.
Visiting the southern hemisphere is a wonderful experience for any stargazer. The sky is disorienting, but filled with new wonders to see and old sights turned quite literally on their heads!
Nothing amazes even the most inveterate skywatcher more than traveling to another hemisphere and seeing sky move. It moves the wrong way!
Whether you are from the southern hemisphere traveling north, or as I do, travel south from the Northern Hemisphere, watching how the sky moves can be disorienting.
Here I present a video montage of time-lapses shot last April in Australia, at the annual OzSky Star Party near Coonabarabran in New South Wales.
Select HD and Enlarge button to view at full screen at best quality.
You’ll see the sky set in the west but traveling in arcs from right to left, then in the next clip, rise in the east, again moving from right to left. That’s the wrong angle for us northerners.
Looking north you see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set over a night and that change with the seasons. In this case, the night starts with Orion (upside-down!) to the north but setting over in the west, followed by Leo and bright Jupiter. The sky is moving from east to west, but that’s from right to left here. The austral Sun does the same thing by day.
Looking south, we see the circumpolar constellations, the ones that circle the South Celestial Pole. Only there’s no bright “South Star” to mark the pole.
The sky, including the two Magellanic Clouds (satellite galaxies to the Milky Way) and the spectacular Milky Way itself, turns around the blank pole, moving clockwise – the opposite direction to what we see up north.
I shot the sequences over four nights in early April, as several dozen stargazers from around the world revelled under the southern stars, using an array of impressive telescopes supplied by the Three Rivers Foundation, Australia, for us to explore the southern sky.
The sky and sea present an ever-changing panorama of light and colour from the view point of an Australian lighthouse.
Last week I spent a wonderful four nights at the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, in Hat Head National Park, on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. I was after panoramas of seascapes and cloudscapes, and the skies didn’t disappoint.
At sunset, as below, the sky to the east glowed with twilight colours, with the bright clouds providing a beautiful contrast against the darkening sky. The kangaroo at far right was an added bonus as he hopped into frame just at the right time.
At sunrise, the Sun came up over the ocean to the east, providing a stunning scene to begin the day.
The Smoky Cape Lighthouse was lit up for the first time in 1891. It was staffed for decades by three keepers and their families who lived in the cottages visible in the panoramas above. They tended to the kerosene lamps, to cleaning the lenses, and to winding the weight-driven clockwork mechanism that needed resetting every two hours to keep the reflector and lens assembly turning. By day, they would draw the curtains across to keep the Sun from heating up the optics.
The huge optical assembly uses a set of nine lenses, each a massive fresnel lens, to shot focused beams out to sea. The optics produce a trio of beams, in three sets.
Each night you could see the nine beams sweeping across the sky and out to sea, producing a series of three quick flashes followed by a pause, then another three flashes, the characteristic pattern of the Smoky Bay Light. Each lighthouse has its own flashing pattern.
The lead photo, repeated above, shows the beams in the twilight, with the stars of the Southern Cross as a backdrop. Three beams are aimed toward the camera while the other two sets of beam trios are shooting away out to sea.
The image below shows the beam trio shining out over the water toward one of the dangerous rocks off shore.
The Lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1962, when staff was reduced. Then in the 1980s all lighthouses were automated and staff were no longer needed.
While we might romanticize the life of a lighthouse keeper, it was a lonely and hard life. Keepers were usually married, perhaps with children. While that may have lessened the isolation, it was still a difficult life for all.
Today, some of the cottages have been converted into rentable rooms. I stayed in the former house of the main light keeper, filled with memorabilia from the glory days of staffed lighthouses.
The image above takes in the Southern Cross over the moonlit beach in the dawn twilight.
The last image below is my final astrophoto taken on my current trip to Australia, a 360° panorama of the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light from the back garden of the Lighthouse overlooking the beach at Hat Head National Park.
It’s been a superb trip, with over half a terabyte of images shots and processed! The last few blogs have featured some of the best, but many more are on the drives for future posts.
When visiting southern latitudes nothing disorients a northern hemisphere astronomer more than seeing our familiar Moon turned “the wrong way!”
With the Moon now dominating the night sky, my photo attention in Australia turns to it as my celestial subject.
It’s wonderful to see the Moon as a crescent phase in the evening sky, but now flipped around so it looks like the Moon we see from home up north when it is a waning crescent in the morning.
However, the lead image above actually shows the waxing crescent in the evening. It shines above the volcanic hills near Warrumbungles National Park, with the added silhouette of the dome of the Australian Astronomical Telescope, the largest optical telescope in Australia.
After a lifetime of seeing the Moon in its northerly orientation, seeing the austral Moon throws off your sense of time and direction. Are we looking west in the evening? Or east in the morning? The Moon just doesn’t make sense!
Then there’s the Full Moon. It rises in the east, as does the Sun. But like the Sun, the “down under Moon” moves from right to left across the northern, not southern sky. And the familiar “Man in the Moon” figure is upside down, as seen above.
The photo above is from Friday night, and shows the Full Moon rising in the northeast over the Pacific Ocean.
This “HDR” image above from earlier in the evening captures the golden glitter path of moonlight on the ocean waves. I photographed these Full Moon scenes from the Headlands viewpoint at Woolgoolga, a great spot for panoramic seascapes.
The Full Moon this night was the apogee Full Moon of 2016 – the smallest and most distant Full Moon of the year, the opposite of a “supermoon.”
Earlier in the week I was inland, high on the New England Tablelands in New South Wales. This image shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the evening twilight over Ebor Falls on the Guy Fawkes River, one of the few waterfalls on the famed Waterfall Way in New Soith Wales that has water flowing year round.
From southern latitudes the most amazing region of the sky shines overhead late on austral autumn nights.
There is no more spectacular part of the Milky Way than the regions around its galactic centre. Or at least in the direction of the galaxy’s core.
We can’t see the actual centre of the Galaxy, at least not with the cameras and telescopes at the disposal of amateur photographers such as myself.
It takes large observatory telescopes equipped with infrared cameras to see the stars orbiting the actual centre of the Milky Way. Doing so over many years reveals stars whipping around an invisible object with an estimated 4 million solar masses packed into the volume no larger than the solar system. It’s a black hole.
By comparison, looking in that direction with our eyes and everyday cameras, we see a mass of stars in glowing clouds intersected by lanes of dark interstellar dust.
The top image shows a wide view of the Milky Way toward the galactic centre, taking in most of Sagittarius and Scorpius and their incredible array of nebulas, star clusters and rivers of dark dust, all located in the dense spiral arms between us and the galactic core.
Zooming into that scene reveals a panoramic close-up of the Milky Way around the galactic centre, from the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, at left, to the Cat’s Paw Nebula in Scorpius, at right.
This is the richest hunting ground for stargazers looking for deep-sky wonders. It’s all here, with field after field of telescopic and binocular sights in an area of sky just a few binocular fields wide.
The actual galactic core area is just right of the centre of the frame, above the bright Sagittarius StarCloud.
Zooming in again shows just that region of sky in an even closer view. The contrast between the bright star fields at left and the dark intervening dust at right is striking even in binoculars – perhaps especially in binoculars.
The visual impression is of looking into dark canyons of space plunging off bright plateaus of stars.
In fact, it is just the opposite. The dark areas are created by dust much closer to us, hiding more distant stars. It is where the stars are most abundant, in the dust-free starclouds, that we see farthest into the galaxy.
In the image above the galactic centre is at right, just above the small diffuse red nebula. In that direction, some 28,000 light years away, lurks the Milky Way’s monster black hole.
To conclude my tour of the galactic centre, I back out all the way to see the entire sky and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, with the galactic centre nearly overhead in this view from 3 a.m. earlier this week.
Only from a latitude of about 30° South can you get this impressive view, what I consider one of the top “bucket-list” sights the sky has to offer.