My Top Astronomical Experience of 2011: Exploring the Far-Southern Skies

Southern SkiesChoosing my top astronomical experience for 2011 is easy for me, as my wife and I spent 5 weeks in New Zealand, travelling all over, often staying in places away from large cities. The view we had of the far-southern skies almost defies description.

I prepared for this trip by packing my 7x50 binoculars for observing and my Canon digital SLR with the MusicBox EQ mount for taking time exposures of the sky. I also made a Southern-Hemisphere planisphere downloaded from a website and printed at home. I only had one night with a borrowed telescope, but I found that most nights I was content with simply wandering through that part of the Milky Way not viewable from Nova Scotia: the swath of stars between Scorpius and Canis Major, including Centaurus, Crux, Vela, Carina, and Puppis.

As described in Alan Whitman's "Southern Hemisphere Splendours," this region has the finest emission nebula (NGC 3532), the most impressive globular cluster (47 Tucanae), the biggest and brightest globular cluster (Omega Centauri), two large naked-eye galaxies containing their own deep-sky objects (the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds), and the closest naked-eye star in the night sky (Alpha Centauri). I would add that the Southern Hemisphere has more "bright" stars than the Northern Hemisphere, plus the most obvious dark nebula (the Coalsack). You know the globular clusters are going to be good when they have been mislabelled as stars!

Having observed the sky for about a half century, I am fairly familiar with the stars and constellations—at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Stepping outside on that first clear night in a dark-sky observing location in New Zealand, I was overwhelmed by the celestial majesty displayed above me, and I was almost completely lost among the stars and nebulae. I felt once again those feelings of wonder at the sky above, feelings that I had first experienced as a boy. Last February, with all my accumulated sky knowledge and observing experience, I felt humbled by the sight. I spent many more nights under the southern stars, simply gawking, with my unaided eyes and with binoculars, and occasionally taking a photograph to share with my friends back home.

Such a trip may not be possible for everyone, but if you have the chance, take it! Be sure to plan enough nights away from cities in moonless skies to get the most out of it, though. You will not regret it!