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Under The Martinborough Stars

July 23, 2019 July2019 No Comments

Matariki, the Maramataka and the Winter Solstice

Set your alarm clock. Put a pot of coffee on. Wrap up warm. Morning stargazing in Winter rewards you with viewing the beautiful Matariki cluster.

Recently, New Zealand has begun to reinstate the Māori seasonal calendar over the last decade or so, and now most towns, cities and communities celebrate Matariki in Mid-Winter in some form or another.

Last month, the Winter Solstice occurred on June the 22nd; the shortest day and the longest night. The Southern Hemisphere is tilted at its furthest point away from the Sun, so the South Pole is in constant darkness and won’t see sunlight again for another 3 months. 

All cultures around the world have found clever ways to use the sky to work out the seasons. Particular stars can be seen at certain times of the year so if you can recognise a star and its position you can work out the season. Matariki is our Winter seasonal marker.

But what is Matariki? Firstly, it is a star cluster, not a constellation. A star cluster is a group of stars that were all born from the same cloud of gas and are gravitationally bound to each other. A constellation is different; it’s a group of stars in the sky that aren’t actually near each other but form a pattern as we see it from Earth.

Matariki has an estimated 1000 stars within the cluster but usually nine stars are visible with the naked eye. They are blue stars; which means they are hot and relatively young stars. I say young, but they are estimated to be 100 million years old, compared to our yellow Sun which is 4.5 billion years old.

Matariki is a superb seasonal marker, as it rises immediately before the Sun on the shortest day in the Eastern morning sky. The Māori calendar uses Matariki to reset the year.

Māori use a Moon calendar called the Maramataka. They follow the phases of the Moon through its cycle to work out when to fish, harvest, plant or rest. Each moon cycle is 29.5 days long, the word Month actually comes from the old word Moonth; meaning one moon cycle. 

You are probably ahead of me already, but twelve moon cycles doesn’t add up to 365 days. In fact it is 11 days short, a total of 356 days. That is ok, possibly for the first year, but after 3 years your calendar would already be a month out of sync.  

To stop this problem, you need to reset the calendar yearly. Finding an astronomical marker is perfect. You would sit up all night, wait till morning and physically see Matariki rise before the Sun. The start of the next moon cycle would start the Māori New Year.

Chances are you probably didn’t get up at 5.30 am on the 22nd June, but you can still enjoy viewing the beautiful cluster over Winter.

Becky is owner of Under The Stars; Wairarapa’s mobile stargazing service.

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