Deep in the southern Milky Way lies one of the most spectacular regions of sky.
Located about as far south in the Milky Way as it gets you find this wonderful region in Carina and Centaurus.
The Carina Nebula (NGC 3372) at upper right is one of the finest nebulas in the sky for binoculars or any telescope.
At lower left is the Running Chicken Nebula (IC 2948) (aka the Lambda Centauri Nebula). By contrast, this nebula is mostly a photographic target, and is a challenge to see with a small telescope. But can you see the Chicken here?
The small red and magenta nebulas at centre are called NGC 3603 and NGC 3576.
The blue Southern Pleiades star cluster (IC 2602) is at bottom right.
The Pearl Cluster (NGC 3766) is above the Running Chicken at left. The cluster IC 2714 is to the right of the Chicken amid dark nebulas.
The Gem Cluster (NGC 3324) is above and right of the Carina Nebula but small and unresolved here.
The Football Cluster (NGC 3532) is top centre, though partly lost amid the rich starfield.
All told, this is one of the best areas in the sky for deep-sky wonders. But you must travel south to see it, to at least 20° North latitude.
This is a mosaic of three segments, taken with the camera in portrait orientation, stitched with Photoshop to make a square framing of the area. Each segment was a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the 200mm Canon L-series lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 2500.
I shot this mosaic earlier in April from my observing site at Coonabarabran, Australia.
The Southern Cross, the iconic constellation of the southern sky, shines high in the south on austral autumn nights.
I’m in one of my favourite places, Australia, in particular at its self-proclaimed “astronomy capital,” Coonabarabran in New South Wales. Down the road from me is the Siding Spring Observatory.
But for 3 weeks I’m using my own telescope gear to observe and photograph the fabulous southern skies.
For part of my time here I’m attending the annual OzSky Star Party, a small and rather exclusive event for observers from around the world who come here to revel in celestial wonders visible only from southern latitudes.
The lead image at top is a 7-panel panorama of the star party in action, on the grounds of the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, with a dozen or more large and premium telescopes set up for our use.
Overhead is the arch of the southern Milky Way, with the Southern Cross here at its highest about local midnight now in early April at the start of autumn. Below the Milky Way is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way, itself a superb target for telescopes.
To the far right in the Milky Way is Sirius amid the gum trees, and the stars of Canis Major diving into the west. To the far left are the bright star clouds of Scorpius and Sagittarius rising in the east, bringing the glowing core of our Galaxy high into the austral sky. Bright Mars and Saturn shine in and around Scorpius.
This is a view of the Milky Way everyone should see – it is should be one of the top items on any amateur astronomer’s bucket list.
Here, above, I’ve stacked images from a time-lapse to create a star trail scene with the stars of the southern sky rotating about the blank South Celestial Pole. Again, the Southern Cross is at top.
This view, above, focuses on the Milky Way of the deep south, from Vela to Centaurus, passing through Carina and Crux, with the bright Carina Nebula, the Southern Cross, and the dark Coal Sack front and centre.
Here I zoom into the Southern Cross itself, in a mosaic of 3 panels to cover the smallest constellation using a high-resolution astrograph, a 300mm f/4 lens. The Coal Sack is at lower left while numerous star clusters lie embedded within and around the Cross, including the famous “Jewel Box” at left, next to Beta Cruxis, aka Becrux.
I shot the Crux mosaic from my cottage site at Tibuc Gardens, a superb dark sky site and home to a new cottage built after the devastating bush fires of 2013 which destroyed all the other cottages I had stayed at in previous years.
There’s much more to come, as I rapidly fill up my hard drive with time-lapses and deep-sky images of the southern sky. I already have several blogs worth of images processed or about to be. In the meantime, check my Flickr site for the latest images hot off the hard drive and uploaded as best my Oz internet connectivity allows.
The two brightest stars in the night sky shine in the southern sky.
Here are Sirius (at right) and Canopus (at bottom left), the brightest and second brightest stars in the night sky, together near the southern Milky Way.
My image also captures the huge loops of the Gum Nebula, thought to be the remains of a supernova that blew up a million years ago. It’s utterly invisible to the naked eye, but Sirius and Canopus stand out as brilliant stars even from light polluted sites.
Sirius can be seen from northern latitudes but Canopus is below the horizon for any location north of 37° North or so. I shot this image from Australia where these stars pass overhead.
Sirius is a hot blue-white star 8.6 light years away. Canopus appears slightly dimmer but only because it lies much farther away, at some 310 light years. In reality it is a supergiant yellow-white star that shines with a luminosity 15,000 times that of our Sun.
This image takes in Canopus at bottom right, next to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and with the southern Milky Way sweeping across the top, with the Carina Nebula and its attendant star clusters at top left and parts of the Gum Nebula at right.
Here are a few cocktail party facts about Canopus:
• In 480,000 years its motion around the Galaxy will bring Canopus close enough to Earth that it will become the brightest star in our night sky, outranking Sirius.
• The origin of its name is a mystery. One idea is that the star is named for the pilot of the ship that took Menelaus to Troy on the quest to re-capture Helen.
• Canopus, the star, was used in ancient times as a key navigation star for those sailing to southern seas, as it would have risen above the southern horizon from latitudes below 35° North back around 2000 BCE.
• Today, Canopus is charted as the brightest star in the constellation of Carina the Keel, part of the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts.
The Milky Way of the southern hemisphere contains some astonishing deep-sky sights.
The lead image above shows the section of the Milky Way that extends farthest south, and so is visible only from tropical latitudes in the north and, of course, from the southern hemisphere. I shot these images this past week in Australia.
The wide-angle image above takes in the southern Milky Way from Vela, at right, to Centaurus, at left. In the middle is the Southern Cross (left of centre), the Carina Nebula complex and surrounding clusters, and the False Cross at right of frame. The close-ups below zoom into selected regions of this area of the Milky Way. All are spectacular sights in binoculars or any telescope.
This image frames the left side of Crux, the Southern Cross. The bright stars are Becrux (top) and Acrux (bottom). Just below Becrux is the compact and brilliant Jewel Box cluster, aka NGC 4755. Below it are the dark clouds of the Coal Sack, which in photos breaks up into discrete segments and patches.
This region is a favourite of mine for images and for visual scanning in any telescope. The large nebula is the Lambda Centauri complex, also labelled the Running Chicken Nebula. Can you see its outline? Above it is the beautiful Pearl Cluster, aka NGC 3766.
This is the standout object in the deep south – the Carina Nebula complex. I’ve shot this many times before but this is my best take on it. At upper left is the Football Cluster, NGC 3532, while at upper right is the Gem Cluster, NGC 3293.
Seeing this area in person is worth the trip to the southern hemisphere. There are now many photographers up north who have shot marvellous images of Carina but using robotic telescopes. They have never actually seen the object for themselves. They print the images upside down or sideways, a sign of their detachment from the real sky.
You have to stand under the southern stars to really appreciate the magnificence of the Milky Way. All else is just data taking.
The Carina Nebula glows among the colourful southern stars.
I’ve shot this field many times over the years in visits to the southern hemisphere but never with a result quite like this. Last night the sky was hazy with high cloud but I shot anyway. The result is a “dreamy” rendition of the Carina Nebula and its surrounding clusters of stars. At upper left is the Football Cluster, NGC 3532, while at upper right is the Gem Cluster, NGC 3293.
As with my previous post, the haze brings out the star colours, filling the field with pastel shades. It is one of the finest fields in the sky, worth the trip down under.
Alas, skies have clouded up tonight with only a few bright stars and Mars shining through. And the forecast is for rain for the next few days. So I may get lots of writing done at my Aussie retreat.
As a technical note: I shot this with the little 77mm Borg Astrograph, essentially a 300mm f/4 telephoto lens that is tack sharp across a full frame camera, like the Canon 5D MkII I used here. It was riding on my Astro-Physics 400 mount and guided flawlessly with the Santa Barbara SG4 auto-guider. The image is a stack of four 8-minute exposures. All the gear, much of it stored here in Australia between my visits, is working perfectly.
Two icons of the southern hemisphere sky shine side by side in the Milky Way.
Last night was a hazy one at my site in Australia, with high clouds drifting through all evening. I made the best of it and shot some constellations, including the most famous in the southern sky, the Southern Cross, or Crux. It stands at left in the frame, with its distinctive four main stars, three of the blue and the top star of the cross, Gacrux, a very orange tint.
To the left of and below Crux the Milky Way is marred by a dark cloud of interstellar dust, the Coal Sack.
To the right of the frame you can see the pink “flower” of the Carina Nebula, one of the largest star forming regions in the sky. It is flanked by several star clusters, notably the very blue Southern Pleiades, or IC 2602, shining below the Carina Nebula.
The natural haze in the sky added glows around the stars, accentuating their colours.
In all, this is one of the richest and most colourful areas of the sky. It’s a highlight of any southern sky tour.
At the end of a nearly perfect night of southern stargazing, I shot this wide-angle portrait of the southern Milky Way embedded in the deep blue of morning twilight.
In December at dawn, the southern Milky Way extends from Orion (at the extreme right) down through Canis Major, Puppis and Vela (where you can see a large faint red bubble-shaped nebula high in the south) then continues east (left) into Carina and Crux. The red Carina Nebula sits in the Milky Way and the Southern Cross is at left, rising before the two Pointer Stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri. The Magellanic Clouds sits above the cottage I’m using as my southern hemisphere home for stargazing while I am in Australia.
The Carina Nebula ranks as one of the most spectacular sights in the southern sky.
I shot this last night under perfect conditions. I’ve shot this nebula many times before but had to have a go at it again – I think this version is the best yet of many I’ve taken over the years of coming to the southern hemisphere to shoot the sky. I shot this through my 4-inch apo refractor with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera. It’s a stack of five 12-minute exposures at ISO 400.
This massive nebula is the site of loads of star formation, and home to one massive young star, Eta Carinae, that is a prime candidate for a supernova explosion sometime soon. That will certainly stir things up in Carina. This object sits over 6,000 light years away in the next spiral arm in from ours, the Carina-Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way.
Through the telescope it fills the field with intricate shades of grey — the colours show up only in photos – with one bright yellow star at the centre, Eta Carinae itself shrouded in the golden-hued nebula it cast off during its last explosive outburst in the 1840s.
Like the Large Magellanic Cloud, this is one object worth the trip to southern skies just to see for yourself.