Learning the Stars Downunder

A beginner's guide to the Heavens
in the Southern Hemisphere

This section introduces the constellations to residents of the Southern Hemisphere who have just discovered astronomy as a hobby.

While I usually make the assumption that the constellation in question is seen around midnight, in the present case it is more convenient to ignore that condition.

Another assumption, useful for Northern Hemisphere residents, is that they know where to find the North Pole, which serves as a helpful tool for finding other stars. Here in the Southern Hemisphere the South Pole is practically invisible to the naked eye, and there are much better places from which to begin one's journey. (Should you be curious enough to want to find where the South Pole, see further below.)

   The most striking feature of the southern skies is not the Southern Cross! This comes as a surprise to visitors from Northern climes, but the Southern Cross is really rather small, dwarfed by Centaurus. Once you locate the Cross, however, it will remain a constant point of reference.

To find the Southern Cross, then, is the first lesson.

    The Cross is nearly circumpolar to most parts of Australia (more so for New Zealand). That is, only briefly - in September through early November - does it dip for a time below the horizon. Even in these months later in the evening, just before sunrise, it usually does make an appearance. By early January, around midnight, the Cross is nicely visible.

    So, in the midsummer months of the Southern Hemisphere, after night has fallen and all the stars have appeared, you will first marvel at the very pronounced Milky Way, a broad band of slightly lighter sky stretching across the centre of the skies from south to north, packed with many brilliant stars.

Facing South, two very bright stars in the Milky Way will be seen quite near the horizon, one roughly above the other. These are - from above down - beta Centauri (Hadar) and alpha Centauri (Rigil Kentauri). These bright stars are typically called "The Pointers" as they point toward the Southern Cross. Drawing a line from alpha through beta, continue up a very short distance and you will encounter the Cross lying on its left side:

Once identified, the Southern Cross can be used to locate the pivot point around which all stars orbit in the Southern Hemisphere, the South Pole.

Finding the South Pole:

Beginning with the 'Pointer Stars' alpha and beta Centauri, draw a line between these two, then extend a mid-point perpendicular toward the very bright star Achernar, far to your right.

Now advance up to the Southern Cross, and connect the two axes stars, gamma and alpha, and extend this line down toward the first line that you mentally drew. This line will eventually cross the other line; where they cross is the very general region of the South Pole:

    This graph shows the skies around midnight on 1 February.

The South Pole Star is the rather faint (5.5) sigma Octantis, barely visible to the naked eye. The only importance of knowing where the South Pole is located lies in the fact that all stars in the Southern Hemisphere will circle this point as the night proceeds.

Now that you've found the Southern Cross, and the two brightest stars of Centaurus, we can venture out a little further. Below is a general chart of the constellations from the Southern Cross north to about zenith (directly overhead) and over to Achernar (alpha Eridani).

Refer often to the graphic as you study the skies and soon you'll be amazed at how many stars and constellations you remember.

Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, facing North.

Now, turning to face north, we see one of the most familiar sights to Northern residents - Orion. The only difference, of course, is that he is upside down to residents of the Southern Hemisphere:

With Orion near the bottom of your viewing area, then, here are the other stars and constellations you will see from the Southern Hemisphere, late summer and early autumn:

Again, by referring to the various constellations on my web site you'll become further acquainted with their particular details. To help you make those first steps, further below are listed suggested constellations to begin your studies.

Table of all constellations as seen from Australia and New Zealand.

Useful accessories

While much can be seen just with the naked eye (assuming you have no light pollution), even a pair of small binoculars will be a great help. A telescope really only becomes useful after you have become fairly familiar with the stars, and can identify various constellations.

One very useful accessory is a planisphere, a small star chart which the user can manipulate to reproduce the outside sky conditions. Take care to purchase a planisphere made specifically for the Southern Hemisphere. One such planisphere is the Perth Observatory Planisphere, which shows "all major constellations and stars for Latitude 35S". While the planispheres are not detailed enough for more than general viewing, they are helpful in first finding constellations at specific times of the evening or of the year.

Another excellent source of star charts is computer software. A number of excellent planetarium-style programs are available, usually found advertised in astronomy-related periodicals. You can also do a web search to find any number of planetarium programs available online.

With this short introduction, I invite you to come along and enjoy the wonderful constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

To start the journey, select a constellation from the Binocular Menu.

Autumn (March - May): Crux [The Southern Cross]
Winter (June - August): Pavo
Spring (September - November): Eridanus or Phoenix
Summer (December - February): Carina

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Last updated 10 October 2010

All files associated with The Constellations Web Page are by Richard Dibon-Smith.