Enjoy Our Night Sky

You can enjoy a pristine night sky anywhere in Kaikōura, but we’re sharing our favourite spots for relaxed star-bathing and exceptional stargazing. Before you head out we recommend read our top tips on stargazing and our self-guided video so you’re best prepared for an enhanced evening experience. Keen astronomers can use the monthly night sky information downloads. If you’re keen to get creative use the templates to make your own Planetarium Wheel or Star Globe.

Star - Sky
A Perfect Night by Larry Field

Stargazing Tips

It’s a beautiful clear dark night, are you prepared to go outside? Here are some suggestions to help you get ready so you have the best experience.. Click on the headers below for more information.

As you will be standing still for some time we highly recommend you dress up warm. A warm jacket, thermals, thick socks, gloves, scarf and a hat are a must. A blanket can be a good idea too.

If you’re lucky you’ll be able to stargaze from where you’re staying, but it might not be the ideal place. You could be surrounded by other houses and trees, which all reduce the amount of sky you can see. Any light pollution coming from nearby streetlights and homes can take even more of your view away.

Check out out where to view the Kaikōura night sky map further down the page for some recommended locations.

You’ll need to give your eyes time to get used to the darkness which can take up to 40 minutes. You will be able to see so much more the longer you are outside in the dark.

We recommend the DarkLight app which puts your phone into night mode when you need to use it.  The reason for this is that white light from your phone will spoil your dark adaptation for night vision but red light won't.  You can also adjust the brightness if you need your phone for wandering around safely in the dark.

Take time to observe the individual stars. The sky is full of them but notice how some stars are brighter than others. Look for Canopus, the brightest star in the southern skies. Every star is a distant Sun and they are all different sizes and distances away from earth. Is a bright star closer to us than a faint star? Like light bulbs, some stars are brighter and more powerful than others. 

Look for differences in the colours of the stars.  Most stars are an icy white colour , but some are more of a bluish colour while others are yellow, orange or even red because stars have different temperatures. Blue stars are hotter than orange stars.

If you look at the Southern Cross, Mimosa (beta Crucis) and Imai (delta Crucis) are blue white, Acrux (alpha Crucis) is white and Gacrux (gamma Crucis) is yellow.

When we look up into the universe at night, we see a vast overarching dome of stars but we are also looking at different layers of celestial objects, all super imposed upon each other but at very different distances.

The objects closest to Earth are the Moon, and artificial satellites orbiting the Earth. It only takes about 3 - 4 days, travelling at 40,000 km/h by rocket, to reach the Moon. Much farther away, but still visible by eye and binoculars, are the other planets, comets and rocky asteroids. We can track the movement of these close objects as they pass above us in the night sky, against the starry background. They make up our solar system and together we all orbit a single ordinary star, our Sun.

Now we can consider the other suns, the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, which are out in deep space very far away and beyond the abilities of human travel in the foreseeable future. The human eye can see about 6000 stars at night, but these are just the closest ones. The closest neighbouring star would take 4.2 years to reach, travelling at the speed of light, and most of the visible stars are much father. The more powerful your binoculars or telescope are, the more stars you can see between the stars. Even if we can’t make out the tiny distant stars, we can still see the light from them if we gaze at the Milky Way. Here we see the combined light of millions and millions of stars, so far away that they blend into a pale band of light stretching from horizon to horizon. We are looking edge on into our galaxy’s disk of stars, about 105,000 light years across, and our eyes are perceiving light that has been travelling for up to 100,000 years or more. At this level of our view of the universe, we are talking about over 100 billion stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy.

A galaxy is a huge collection of gas, dust, and billions of stars and their solar systems all held together by gravity. In amongst the stars of our galaxy, we can also see gigantic clouds of glowing hydrogen gas, called nebulae (Latin: mist), the birthplaces of stars. As you gaze at the Milky Way, you can see that starlight is blocked out by massive dark dust clouds out in deep space; a large one is the Coal Sack Nebula, next to the Southern Cross. Beautiful open star clusters abound in the galaxy’s disk; several large ones can be seen by binoculars in the southern Milky Way. Our galaxy also has almost 200 globular clusters, which contain up to a million or more stars packed into a ball and all moving but bound together by their common gravity.

Now, turn from the Milky Way to the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds in the southern night sky. We are looking up and out from our galaxy’s disk and we are seeing two of the closest galaxies, far outside our own. They are being torn apart by the combined gravity of the Milky Way, which sucks gas, dust and stars in toward us. The Magellanic Clouds are relatively close, galaxy-speaking – only 160,000 and 200,000 light years from us, yet we can see their starlight clearly after it has travelled all those years to reach Earth.

Instead of looking at the Milky Way, if we shift to the darker parts of the sky, we move to vastly deeper space and our eyes can still pick up light from objects farther away than the Magellanic Clouds. We are speaking of the galaxies of the universe. We can see at least one with our naked eyes, the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years distant, low in the northern Spring sky. With binoculars and telescopes we see many more galaxies between the foreground stars of the Milky Way. As far as the biggest telescopes can see, when looking beyond and between the stars of our Galaxy, the only objects to see are more galaxies, smaller and smaller receding into darkest space even as tiny dots. Although we can’t see them with our eyes, the photons which left these galaxies billions of years ago are still entering our eyes as we gaze into deep space. What lies beyond these galaxies is one of the greatest questions in modern cosmology.

The stars in the sky can be joined up to form patterns known as constellations.  To help you learn how to recognize these, you can use southern constellation charts and cell phone apps. Here are three that we recommend: Stellarium, Constellation Map & Sky & Telescope. For Sky & Telescope you need to enter your location for Kaikoura which is 43 degrees South & 174 degrees West.

There are 88 constellations in the sky and you might easily recognise the Southern Cross as one of the best known. In our northern sky, visitors from the northern hemisphere will recongnise familiar constellations such as Orion, Gemini and Taurus, and even perhaps the bright southern ones such as Scorpius and Sagittarius. However, the truly unique southern constellations are more fun to search for. Using one of the star charts linked above, try to find the Pointer Stars (alpha and beta Centauri), Musca the fly, Triangulum Australe, Vela the sail of the ancient ship Argonaut, Corona Australis the southern crown, and Grus the crane. Two locally familiar (unnamed) groups are the Diamond Cross and the False Cross, made from stars in Vela and Carina, and found by moving along the Milky Way from Crux toward Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky.

At a different time of year, you’ll see the whole sky has changed. This is because the constellations we see change during the year, as Earth orbits the Sun. Each season has its own constellations, which is why it takes a year to properly learn the sky and not just one night.

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There are 8 planets in our solar system. With a naked eye we can see 6 of them - Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Earth if you look down at your feet! To the eye Venus and Jupitur are the brightest at different times of the year.  Uranus can be seen using binoculars but Neptune requires a telescope.  They always lie along the line in the sky (the ecliptic) because their obits all lie within a plane around the Sun.

You might be lucky and see a star dash very fast across the sky: a meteor, or shooting star! Don’t confuse these with artificial satellites and planes, which move slowly. Meteors are tiny grains of space dust or rock burning up in the atmosphere. The very bright ones are called fireballs. Meteorites are the remains of these rocks which survive the trip through the atmosphere and crash onto earth.
To observe meteors, lie back on a comfortable couch or blanket on the ground and continue to watch the sky. You can check out nights for meteor showers on most star chart apps or look at https://www.spacecentre.nz/resources/observing/meteor-showers/new-zealand.html. Concentrate your attention on the sky position given for the point of  origin of the meteors (radiant) or closest star.  Of course, this is a wonderful way to enjoy the splendour of the starry sky while you are watching.

If you stay outside long enough you will notice the stars have moved. As the Earth rotates around it's north - south axis the stars appear to sweep across the sky from east to west and move 15 degrees (1 hands width) per hour.  If you stay looking up into the southern sky you will find that the stars all move around one point which is the extension of the Earth's axis up into the sky. This is the South Celestial Pole. (There is no North Star as in the northern hemisphere night sky). You can discover this point by taking a time exposure photo which will show circular star trails. See the 'Take Photos' section below for more details.

The Milky Way is the edge-on view of the disk of our own spiral galaxy. We live midway in one of the arms of the disk. With your binoculars slowly move up along the Milky Way and try to spot:

  • Star clusters (dense groups of a few 1,000 stars which all formed together and move as a group through deep space in our galaxies disk)
  • Giant globular clusters (gigantic clusters of up to 10 million stars forming a sphere. They are very old and are found in the outer part of our galaxy. Two of the best ones can be seen only in our southern skies)
  • The 4 moons of Jupiter
  • Bright nebula areas (ghostly clouds of luminous hydrogen gas which forms stars)
  • On the Moon look for craters, radial splash lines, dark lava seas and mountain ranges.

There are several local astronomers in Kaikōura with specialist telescopic equipment who volunteer their time to help us explore the night sky. The Kaikōura Dark Sky Trust will be hosting regular astronomy evenings so keep an eye on our calendar.

If you have your own telescope we can recommend some of the Southern hemisphere targets.

There are many different apps which you can download onto your phone to help you enjoy the night sky. We have recommended a few of our favorites here.

Where to View 

Here are a few of our favorite stargazing locations, each offering something different. Some are close to town in case you are on foot or just want a short time outside, others are in the true wilderness and warrant an overnight stay in a tent or hut. Click on the map icons for full details.

Get Creative

Make your own Planetarium Wheel

Design - Circle

Create your own Planetiarum wheel. Sky on wheels is a movable planetarium in the shape of a huge dome that transports you to the outer world by making it a real experience. Use it to help you spot the constellations for any month of the year. You simply line up the date and the time of day. Download and print a PDF. Check out Sky Maps for further information.

Make a Star Globe

Hipparcos - Earth

Create your own Hipparcos star globe. The globe has been derived from the Hipparcos map of the sky, a product of the Hipparcos mission, which contains around 2.5 million of the brightest stars in the sky, and the cloudy Milky Way itself. Download and print a PDF. Provided by the European Space Agency.

Astronomy

The township of Kaikōura is situated on a latitude of 42° South and a large part of the Southern sky, including the Milky Way, is visible year-round. The Large and Small Magellenic Clouds, the Southern Cross, and the magnificent globular cluster Omega Centauri are all easily visible and make good subjects for viewing or astrophotography.

Planetary observers will not be disappointed either, as Kaikōura is also far enough North to make the Sun, Moon and planets high enough above the horizon for clear viewing or photography. A low population density ensures that there is always an opportunity to find a secluded location, away from distractions or lights, to just lie back and take in the awesome splendour of the free celestial show that nature has to offer.

There are several local astronomers in Kaikōura with specialist telescopic equipment who volunteer their time to help us explore the night sky. The Trust will shortly be hosting regular astronomy evenings so keep an eye on our calendar, or let us know if you are interested.

Kaikōura doesn’t have a public observatory but just 2 hours drive north is the Omaka Observatory which provides night sky tours from a crater observatory in the Omaka Valley.

Monthly Night Sky Information

Rise and set times and moon illumiations – view the rise and set times and Moon illumination specifically prepared for Kaikōura for each day in 2024. For more general information view and download the latested timings containing all the months night sky information specifically for Christchurch as the closed location.

Evening Sky Calendar – view and download the latest monthly sky map for the Southern Hemisphere so you can explore, learn and enjoy the night sky and find out what is special for the specific month of the year.

Moon Phases for 2023, New Zealand dates and times – The Moon moves about 15 degrees (almost a hand span) across the sky from from night to night. The side of the Moon toward the Sun is lit, so before full moon the left side of the Moon is the lit side. The right side of the moon is lit after full moon. The Moon looks different in the Southern Hemisphere than it does in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s because those in the Northern Hemisphere view the Moon upside down.  The details on the moon change dramatically from day to day. Indeed even from hour to hour the change in details can be facinating with some features only observable for a few hours at the right phase. Binoculars or a small telescope are fine as a starting point for observing the Moon. Reference Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

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