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 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.

Nightscapes with a Digital Camera

  • Ideally set up with a tripod, otherwise brace your camera on something steady. Don’t rely on your hands to hold the camera still. The photo at the top of this page, “The Perfect Night” was taken with the camera propped on the ground!
  • Wide angle lenses are best: 15mm, 24mm, 35mm. Set f/stop to widest aperture, usually f/2.8 or f/1.4. If your images have out-of-focus corner stars, close aperture by 1 stop.
  • Set camera to manual operation, and if possible, delayed exposure of 2 sec.
  • Start with ISO 1600, since this usually yields good photos.
  • Check the noise level by zooming into your first image. If too noisy use ISO 800, if not, you can try moving up to ISO 6400 or higher. Beware that the noise level usually increases with higher ISO.
  • Set the exposure time to 10 to 20 seconds.
  • Focus on the brightest star or planet using “live view” at 10X, and check the first images by zooming to maximum. Poor focus yields discs as stars.
  • Compose image and check first shots for good focus.

Nightscapes with a Cell Phone

  • You can't hold a cell phone still enough for night scape photography. Either use a tripod or prop the camera against a rock etc. and aim it at the sky. You can also lay it flat on the ground!
  • Zoom out to the widest angle setting, set ISO to1600 and exposure for 10 - 20s.
  • Camera will focus automatically. Touch the shutter symbol lightly, don’t tap it with force since stars will show a jiggle.

Taking Star Trails 

  • Aim the well-stabilized camera up at the south celestial pole, using your star chart app, or roughly aim it at a point 2/3 the distance from the Southern Cross (Crux) to the Small Magellanic Cloud.
  • The easiest way to take star trails is to use a lower ISO setting and a long exposure. Use freshly charged battery in the camera. Try ISO 200 for 20 to 60 minutes. A higher ISO will make a brighter background which ruins contrast. The stars move 15 degrees/hour (360 degrees in a 24 day), so you can estimate how long the trails will be in your photo. The exposure was 40 min in the photo below. It was enhanced with a curves adjustment in the free software Faststone Image Viewer 7.6. For more detailed instructions see this link: https://chrisbrayphotography.com/tips/star_trail_photography.php

Circle - Sky

Images by Larry Field

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 and download the January PDF containing all this months night sky information specifically for Kaikōura.

Evening Sky Map – view and download the November PDF containting the sky map and calendar for November to find out what is special for the month.

Moon Phases for 2022, 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 (reference Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand).

New MoonFirst quarterFull MoonLast quarter
29 Jul 2022 5:555 Aug 2022 23:0712 Aug 2022 13:3619 Aug 2022 16:36
27 Aug 2022 20:174 Sep 2022 6:0810 Sep 2022 21:5918 Sep 2022 9:52
Date and times NZDT = UT + 13 hours
26 Sep 2022 10:553 Oct 2022 13:1410 Oct 2022 9:5518 Oct 2022 6:15
25 Oct 2022 23:491 Nov 2022 19:379 Nov 2022 0:0217 Nov 2022 2:27
24 Nov 2022 11:571 Dec 2022 3:378 Dec 2022 17:0816 Dec 2022 21:56

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Thank you to all our supporters who have kindly provided free ongoing services & advice or have generously donated funds. You are amazing and the stars will shine a little brighter because of you.

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