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Under The Martinborough Stars

November 11, 2019 November 2019 No Comments

I was at a local school’s stargazing event recently when a lady came up to me and said those dreaded words, “I saw something weird in the sky last night, what was it?”

My first thought was “Venus!” Most of the time when people see something odd in the sky, it’s Venus. It is one of the two innermost planets and appears brightly around dusk and dawn. We only see it if we look towards the Sun, as its orbit is smaller than ours so only appears as we spin into sunset or sunrise.

However, this was a problem as Venus was visible in the morning and not the evening.

Probing further, she described the objects as high in the sky, near the Milky Way and looked like two ‘commas’ in the sky.  “Ah ha!” I thought, I knew exactly what she was describing. The two satellite galaxies, the Magellanic clouds / Te Reporepo.

The Magellanic Clouds are two fuzzy cloud like objects close to the Southern Cross / Te Punga. They occur near the Southern Celestial Pole so they are seen all year round. They never set if you’re looking up in Aotearoa / New Zealand.

They are named after Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who circumnavigated the world in the early 1500s. Of course, these galaxies were known by cultures in the Southern Hemisphere before then but came to be known as the Magellanic Clouds after he arrived home.

The two galaxies are satellites of our own home galaxy the Milky Way. We aren’t exactly sure if they are remnants of a previous collision with each other and moving away, or if they will crash into our galaxy in the future. There are still so many mysteries in astronomy to be solved.

Astronomers are particularly excellent at naming deep sky objects. These galaxies are called the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). I don’t think anyone needs any help working out which is which. (see the picture, can you work it out?)

The LMC is 160,000 light years away while the SMC is 200,000 light years away. Remember, one light year is how far light can travel in one Earth Year; approx. 9.5 trillion kilometres. So, these galaxies are a huge distance away.

The Magellanic Clouds are always stunning to look at. If you have access to a darkish site on a moonless night, head outside and look up. You can find them near the Southern Cross.

Even better, go and find your old binoculars, dust them off and look up. The LMC has a gorgeous nebula in it called the Tarantula Nebula. Again, deep sky objects have obvious names so you can easily work out what shape this is meant to resemble. 

Keep looking up, you never know what you might discover. But if you do see something odd in the sky, keep calm, it’s likely Venus.

Becky Bateman runs Under The Stars, a nomadic stargazing service and is the winner of the Emerging Wairarapa Business Award 2019


Photo caption: The Magellanic Clouds Photo: Matt Balkham

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