Uncovering the Real Night Sky in New Zealand

Posted February 11, 2014 by Charli Moore in Just Back

There have been moments throughout my travels when I’ve noticed that the glinting lights of the night sky overhead are much more prominent than usual.

On those occasions when I’ve been far enough away from the cities and towns which pollute the darkness with light, I’ve found myself mesmerized by the blanket of stars which covers our earth as we sleep.

7 January 2014

A Nocturnal Masterpiece

Until my recent visit to New Zealand, I had never heard of the concept of the Real Night Sky.

The reserve is a key piece in the puzzle that is our understanding of deep space.

I thought there was only one view of the vast expanse of space above, one perspective of an uncharted world.

Sadly that’s not the case. We can all see a peppering of stars but the Real Night Sky is reserved for the lucky few who choose to live outside of the population centers which pump out light pollution with vigor each time the sun disappears.

Sadly most of us are blind to the phenomenal nocturnal masterpiece which decorates our skies at night.

3 January 2014

Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Designated a Dark Sky Reserve, 4,367 square kilometers of New Zealand’s Mackenzie country are protected from manmade light pollution.

Once the sun sets the floor of the Mackenzie basin is illuminated purely by moonlight. Within the reserve streetlights and external light sources are regulated in order to ensure that they do not omit a fluro glare and obscure the unique view of the heavens.

As I look out at its celestial form a shooting star streaks across my field of view.

The largest in the world the reserve is a key piece in the puzzle that is our understanding of deep space, one of the true wonders of our very existence.

Selected after rigorous field tests for clarity of direct sight to the solar system beyond our atmosphere, the reserve is home to the Mount John Observatory.

Also home to a dedicated team of astronomers, the observatory is one of just a handful of sites across the globe working continually to unlock the secrets of the universe.

Visiting Earth & Sky

Clad in a Canada goose down jacket I stand and stare at the sky.

I’ve never seen such a magnitude of stars. The jet black canvas on which they are laid out serves only to highlight their flickering forms.

Visible to the naked eye during the hours of daylight the planet appears within the inky canvas as a golden crest of light.

I’m joining the team of Earth & Sky for the evening. It’s already 10pm but we’ve only just arrived at the observatory atop Mount John.

Our guide points out our nearest star Alpha Centauri, the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus and a whopping 4.37 light years from the Sun.

As I look out at its celestial form a shooting star streaks across my field of view.

Fragments of asteroid burning up as they enter our earth’s atmosphere, these dancing stars are more often than not the product of a piece the size of a grain of sand.

Quite a gallant display from such a small amount of matter.

Galaxies and Nebula

Looking through the telescope set up on the terrace I can see Venus.

Visible to the naked eye during the hours of daylight the planet appears within the inky canvas as a golden crest of light. Tracking across the southern sky until just after midnight, its shimmering hue is the brightest natural object in the sky after the moon.

Reaching its maximum brightness shortly before or after sunset the planet is referred to as the Morning Star or Evening Star by a number of ancient cultures.

The sight of the alien world reverberates through my soul and awakens a primal urge for exploration.

Peering out at the gas rich nebulae and young stellar populations through the telescopes atop Mount John was hypnotic.

Joining the team inside I focus on the Globular Clusters through a colossal 16 inch telescope. The oldest objects in the observable universe they can be seen with the naked eye.

That thought in itself is just incredible.

A tightly bound spherical collection of stars they orbit the rotational center of our Milky Way galaxy as a star satellite, their light travelling over 16,700 light years to reach our earth.

Looking deep into the heart of our galaxy I can see tiny pin pricks of light. Their forms juxtaposed against the darkness.

Over the course of the evening the telescope is focused on ethereal objects at the far reaches of my understanding of the universe.

With each new glimpse into the solar system I am humbled by its magnitude.

The Clouds of Magellan

My mind just can’t process the idea that we can see into the far reaches of our own universe, let alone one which satellites our home the Milky Way.

Visible to the naked eye from the southern hemisphere the Clouds of Magellan are irregular dwarf galaxies. The light which we can see from these interstellar nurseries is over 200,000 years old so to see the clouds as they appear today, I would need to return to Mount John in 200,000 years.

Thanks to the numerous advances in technology the human race is able to catalogue and map the night sky in incredible detail.

A mind blowing concept.

Long believed to orbit our Milky Way recent theory suggests that they are in fact much closer than ever before and have been distorted by tidal interaction with our galaxy.

Peering out at the gas rich nebulae and young stellar populations through the telescopes atop Mount John was hypnotic.

I felt as though I was looking into the past, present and future of our existence all rolled up into a mass of celestial cosmology.

An Astrological Education

My evening atop Mount John offered me the chance to see out into our universe with such superb clarity I fear I will never have such an intimate view of interstellar life again.

Having said that it was the time I spent with Earth & Sky Astronomy Guide Andrew Davis, which really instilled an appreciation of just how vast the observable universe really is.

While I highly recommend Earth & Sky’s Night Tour the Daytime Tour around the working astronomy research center, operated by students and Professors of New Zealand’s University of Canterbury and Japanese partners Nagoya University, is just as inspiring.

Since my visit I’ve looked up towards the heavens each night after dark.

Thanks to the numerous advances in technology the human race is able to catalogue and map the night sky in incredible detail.

Home to the largest telescope in New Zealand, the MOA – Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics – telescope assists Mt John astronomers in their search for dark matter, extra-solar planets and stellar atmospheres.

Listening to Andrew talk passionately about life outside our atmosphere was enthralling.

He explained the basics of the gravitational microlensing technique detailing that it is the search for anomalies recorded over a period of time – while cataloguing one tiny portion of the sky – which indicates the existence of a celestial planet, galaxy or black hole.

When I say tiny I mean in relation to our perspective here on earth. The MOA telescope maps an incredible area and operates 365 days a year weather allowing.

27 December 2013
Visiting the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve

Until my visit I had very little understanding of astronomy or the night sky.

However as I crawled into bed after my evening of stargazing with Earth & Sky my desire to find out more about the cosmos and our own Milky Way was overwhelming.

Having seen the beauty and clarity of the nocturnal scene from inside the reserve I now appreciate just how our neon existence affects our connection with the night sky, a natural wonder which has guided our ancestors over the years.

Since my visit I’ve looked up towards the heavens each night after dark. Counted constellations and searched for Venus glowing brightly on the horizon.

The team at Earth & Sky is passionate about educating those who visit.

Their goal is to instil an understanding of the importance astronomy plays in the evolution of our tiny blue planet and I’ve no doubt in my mind that their enthusiasm will inspire you to conduct your own stellar research under the cover of darkness.

Just remember to leave your flashlight at home.

All astrophotography in this article was either taken by, or with the assistance of Maki Yanagimachi — Astronomy Guide & Astrophotographer.

Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by Earth & Sky, but all opinions expressed are my own.

Have you ever seen the magnitude of the Real Night Sky? Share your comments with us below.

About the Author

Charli Moore

Travel writer and blogger Charli is a digital nomad currently travelling the world with her other half Ben. Whether backpacking through Central America or road tripping around Australia they embrace each and every opportunity for adventure. Read more about their insatiable wanderlust on their blog, Wanderlusters.

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