Southern hemisphere cheat sheet

There's a whole new set of constellations, bright stars and deep sky objects waiting for stargazers venturing south of the equator.

ESA & A Fujii HEADER

Image Credit: ESA & A. Fujii 

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Think you know the night sky?

If you’ve only ever stargazed from the northern hemisphere, you only know half the story.

To a northerner, the seasonal constellations are all upside-down in the south, while a slew of bright stars – including the nearest to us – and some of the night sky’s most arresting deep-sky sights are all on show.

While the north pole faces outwards to the Universe beyond, the south pole points to the galactic centre of the Milky Way: cue more bright stars and more constellations containing more stunning objects.

However, it can initially be disorientating.

This cheat sheet will help you get your bearings when below the equator and enjoy spectacular stargazing from some of the southern hemisphere’s darkest and best-equipped places for stargazers.

Head south to see the centre of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky
Head south to see the centre of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

The Milky Way’s bright centre

With the naked eye, find the Summer (or should that be Winter?) Triangle – which will be upside down – and trace the Milky Way from Deneb on the northern horizon up to Altair, across the zenith above you through Sagittarius and its Teapot asterism, and down to Alpha Centauri and the Southern Cross above the southern horizon.

This is the Sagittarius Arm of our galaxy, and it’s stunning.

Best time to see: June-September

Take a trip right across the Milky Way's bright centre
Take a trip right across the Milky Way’s bright centre

Alpha Centauri

To see the nearest star to our Sun is one of the reasons stargazers love to travel south.

Sadly Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star just 4.24 light-years from us, is too small to see, but its much brighter companion Alpha Centauri is the third brightest star in the sky.

Just 4.3 light-years from Earth, this double star (triple if you count Proxima Centauri) is also an anchor for southern stargazers.

Best time to see: March-September

The Southern Pointers

Alpha Centauri has a close visual neighbour that’s almost as bright, though Beta Centauri is 390 light years distant.

It’s actually two stars orbiting each other, 10,000 times brighter than our Sun.

Together, Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri are called the Southern Pointers because they point straight to Crux, also known as the Southern Cross.

Once found, they’re never forgotten.

Best time to see: March-September

The Southern Cross is surrounded by arresting night sky sights.
The Southern Cross is surrounded by arresting night sky sights.

Crux (Southern Cross)

Perhaps the most famous southern sight of all, Crux – the Southern Cross – can appear surprisingly small for first-timers.

It’s also often missed (there’s a much bigger False Cross nearby).

To find it, go from Alpha Centauri to Beta Centauri, then go three times the distance between those two stars and you’ll arrive at Gacrux at the top of the cross.

Sweep binoculars around here and you’ll see numerous stunning star clusters.

Best time to see: March-September

The Jewel Box cluster is an unmissable southern sight. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky
The Jewel Box cluster is an unmissable southern sight.
Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

Jewel Box cluster

This is one for binoculars or, better still, a small telescope.

If you love the Perseus Double Cluster in the north, you’ll instantly love the Jewel Box – NGC 4755 – a bright open cluster found close to Gacrux and Becrux in the Southern Cross.

Four stars in binoculars, it’s revealed as 100 sparkling red and blue stars in a telescope.

Best time to see: March-September

Coalsack Nebula

There’s nothing to see here, but that’s the point.

Look just below the Jewel Box Cluster for a dark band across the Milky Way, which will be very obvious if you’re under a dark sky.

The Coalsack is an interstellar dust cloud about 600 light years distant that blocks the light of stars behind it from reaching us.

The stars you can see ‘within’ it – visible with binoculars – are in fact closer to us than the Coalsack itself.

Best time to see: March-September

Canopus

Also known as the Great Star of the South, Canopus is a visual big brother to Sirius.

The second brightest star in the sky after Sirius is 40 degrees below its brighter companion, so while rarely visible to stargazers in the northern hemisphere (it can be glimpsed from equatorial latitudes), both stars are often seen together in the southern night sky.

However, these brothers aren’t close; Sirius is 8.7 lightyears from us, while Canopus is 313 lightyears distant, and a whopping 65 times larger than the Sun.

Best time to see: October-May

The Small and Large Magellanic Clouds are best seen from February to July. Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)
The Small and Large Magellanic Clouds are best seen from February to July.
Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (twanight.org)

Small & Large Magellanic Clouds

Northern newcomers have been heard to utter that the southern hemisphere is too cloudy, until being told that those hazy patches are actually close-by galaxies.

The SMC and the LMC, dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way, are filled with dense star fields and a major reason why the world’s biggest telescopes are situated south of the equator.

The LMC contains the Tarantula Nebula, a supermassive version of the Orion Nebula.

Best time to see: October-February

Eta Carinae & the Southern Pleiades

Forget Betelgeuse; it’s Eta Carinae that is more likely to go supernova.

This, the most massive star of all, is 9,000 light years away and 100 times bigger than the Sun, but an unfathomable five million times more luminous.

It’s at the centre of the Great Nebula in Carina, NGC 3372.

Below it, on the opposite side of the plane of the Milky Way, is an open cluster called the Southern Pleiades, which looks spectacular through binoculars.

Best time to see: February-July

The Omega Centauri can be found near the Southern Cross.
The Omega Centauri can be found near the Southern Cross.

Omega Centauri

A naked eye globular cluster?

The very finest of them all – and visible from southerly latitudes above the equator – the startlingly bright Omega Centauri globular cluster (NGC 5139) is bright fuzzy blob even without binoculars.

This 13 billion year old, one million star-strong globular, thought to be the nucleus of a dwarf galaxy that collided with the Milky Way, can be found by making an equilateral triangle using The Pointers and the Southern Cross and Epsilon Centauri, but it’s so bright it’s hard to miss in clear skies.

Best time to see: March–September

Southern stargazing hotspots

Africa offers some of the planet's darkest skies
Africa offers some of the planet’s darkest skies

Mashatu, Botswana

Africa often gets overlooked by stargazers, but its skies are among the world’s darkest.

Mashatu in the eastern Kalahari Desert is rain-free 92% of the year and has zero light pollution. Aardvark Safaris can organise seven nights at Mashatu Tent Camp (from £2,653 per person, including flights).

Just be careful where you walk if you see a shooting star; locals spit on the floor if they see one to guard against misfortune.

The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa
The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa

Atacama Desert, Chile

Up on a plateau as high as a breathtaking 16,400ft/5,000m, the stars don’t twinkle, they glow.

RealWorld’s 12-day Vines & Volcanoes trip (£2,295 per person) includes visits to the VLT, HARPS and ALMA telescopes.

It’s also possible to visit Elqui Domos, an observatory with two Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes, while Rainbow Tours’ Ultimate Stargazing Adventure (from £4,930 per person) includes three nights at Alto Atacama, which has its own observatory and stargazing programme.

Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia has telescopes and a resident astronomer.
Sossusvlei Desert Lodge in Namibia has telescopes and a resident astronomer.

NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia

In one of only three gold-rated International Dark Sky Parks in the world, NamibRand’s clear, unpolluted skies are legendary among stargazers and astro-photographers.

If you’re happy to rough it, Gane and Marshall run a guided desert hike to sleep under the stars from £495 per person.

Meanwhile, andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge offers stargazing at an observatory, complete with resident astronomer.

The Skyline Rotorua Stargazing trip offers big telescopes and a big sky.
The Skyline Rotorua Stargazing trip offers big telescopes and a big sky.

New Zealand

Near the geothermal wonder that is Rotorua in the North Island, the Skyline Rotorua Stargazing is a trip up Mount Ngongotaha by gondola to a dedicated observing platform.

Complete with guide and telescope time, the 75-minute tour costs from NZ$85 per adult.

Meanwhile, 360-degree glass Pure Pods in River, Canterbury and Kaikoura – both in the South Island – promise stargazing from your bed (from £210 per night).


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Jamie Carter is the author of A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide, published by Springer. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.