Find South with Stars: Things I Learned at Carter Observatory in Wellington, New Zealand

From the big bang to space exploration, Carter Observatory in Wellington took us through time with colorful exhibits.

Exhibit in Carter Observatory, Wellington, New Zealand

Sarah and I visited during our recent mother-daughter adventure. We went on Saturday night in hopes of seeing the  refracting telescope at work. We were tired after a morning Walk Wellington tour and a visit to the Wellington Zoo in the afternoon, but the day had a clear sky and we wanted to see the stars.

We began our visit in the galleries where many of the exhibits are interactive, while details filled the walls, allowed each of us to learn as much as we wanted.

Space rocks in Carter Observatory, Wellington, New Zealand

We could touch and lift the space rocks.

Tame the Sun, a bright exhibit in the Southern Skies Gallery

Using the stick-like handle, Tame the Sun is an interactive highlighting how the stars guided the early Maori and Polynesian ancestors to New Zealand.

Junior Astronaut Zone in Carter Observatory, Wellington, New Zealand

A bit of fun for the junior astronaut in all of us, although the short door suggests it is mainly for the littler people. As there were no kids waiting Sarah gave the simulator a try.

At our ticket time we headed to the Planetarium show where our reclining seats allowed us to see a simulated night sky. (Tip: Best seats are towards the back). Our show was a “double feature”, the first on a fascinating current event,  the Google Lunar XPrize, a privately funded Race to the Moon. The second was the sky over the Southern Hemisphere.

Planetarium show seating in Carter Observatory, Wellington, New Zealand

Planetarium show seating in Carter Observatory

My personal highlight was learning to find south with the stars during the show. Many people have tried to teach this to me, and until Carter Observatory’s simple method I have never quite understood it.

How to Find South with the Stars:

  1. Locate the constellation Cruz (the Southern Cross). If you unsure as to which set of stars make up Cruz, look for the nearby, and very bright Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (the pointer stars) .

    Crux_(Southern_Cross) and pointer stars

    Photo Credit:” Crux (Southern Cross) from Hobart, Tasmania” by EdoddridgeOwn work. Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

  2.  Next look off the bottom of the Southern Cross, and find Acharner (see graphic below). It is the tenth brightest stars in the sky, also the bluest. (It’s the brightest star off of the bottom of Cruz, several lengths away)Using Stars to Find South
  3. Point your left hand at the top star of the Cruz.
  4. Point your right hand at Acherner
  5. Bring your hands together, then drop them towards the horizon and you are pointing South.

Trying this during the show was brilliant, as the artificial sky has the four directions labeled at the lower edge. When my hands came down on the “S” I knew the method worked.  I can’t get this reassurance outdoors.

Finally Time to See the Real Stars

After the show we headed to the telescope:

New Zealand's largest refracting telescope is in Carter Observatory, Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand’s largest refracting telescope surveying the skies since 1867. Weather permitting the roof opens (on Tuesday and Saturday) allowing visitors to see it in action. Sadly, when it was dark enough for our star viewing, a cloud cover enveloped the night sky and the dome stayed closed.

Practical Travel Tips for Visitors

  • Carter Observatory is located at the top of the hill in Wellington’s Botanic Gardens. Part of the fun is taking the cable car up to the top.
  • If you have a few extra hours, my suggested tourist day in Wellington starts with a cable car ride up to the top, followed by a visit to Cable Car Museum (free), then a visit Carter Observatory, a walk through the botanic gardens (free) on the path that leads down to the city and then take a tour of Parliament (free).
  • If you visit at night remember the last cable car down leaves at 10pm.
  • The bonus of going at night:
Wellington lights as seen from the top of the Cable Car

Wellington lights as seen from the top of the Cable Car, beautiful even on a cloudy, starless night.

Being married to a rocket scientist, I always visit places like this.  Carter Observatory is a destination I would recommend whilst in Wellington, and a must-see if this is your first visit to the Southern Hemisphere.

Have you visited Carter Observatory? Do you use the stars for navigation?

Disclaimer: We were guests of Carter Observatory. The opinions expressed here are strictly my own.

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Comments

    • says

      LOL Lyn, it’s easier at night. Just find the Southern Cross and the other bright star. It’s as easy as I said, go out tonight and try it. Bring your hands together, and drop them down in front of you. As long as you have left and right pointing at the correct stars, you can’t miss.

  1. says

    Hi Rhonda .. what a great centre to visit and then that tour round … I can definitely see the advantage of spending a day – but your night visit must trump that. Lovely photos … so glad the star gazing was able to ‘help’ with the discovery of the various stars …

    Fascinating museum – and definitely one to see .. congratulations on NZ getting to the semi-finals – and that incredible score .. I’ve been solar eclipsing over here with lots of extra pieces of info going around my brain .. cheers Hilary

  2. says

    The entire experience looks phenomenal, though I still don’t quite understand how to find south. That’s okay. Hopefully, my survival won’t ever depend on it.

  3. says

    Fancy being married to a rocket scientist – no wonder you visit such places. My husband used to work at a marine park authority so I have been lucky enough to be involved in snorkelling on coral reefs. 🙂 I think N.Z.’s largest refracting telescope is quite beautiful.

  4. says

    I’m really hopeless at reading the night sky. I like the idea of visiting a place like this and actually learning how to find south. I reckon I’d still get lost though. And how cool is that, to be married to a rocket scientist.

  5. says

    Hubby and I love to visit observatories. You learn so many wonderful things there.

    I would love to go to Kauai for a month in January or February. That’s on our to do list. We have some commitments that need our attention first.

    Have a fabulous day. 🙂

    • says

      I wouldn’t mind a trip to Hawaii either. Maybe we can meet you there for a week – but I don’t think we will see the Southern Cross. We will have to learn how to find North with the North Star.

  6. says

    This is what Gordon revels in and much to his dismay, I can’t get it figured in my head which star to direct me this way or that. I loved the post though, so we won’t tell Gordon that I learnt stuff here.

  7. says

    That sure seems like a very interesting place to go and learn much from. I love places like this, not to mention I could watch the stars for hours at a time and would be just fine with that. Yet I have to admit it’s been a very long time since we take time just to sit and relax under the stars.

  8. says

    I have been to the Carter Observatory! I live in Wellington. The last time I went was for a wine tasting of red wines from the Gimlett Gravels area of Hawkes Bay. It was an amazing night and you could see Saturn through the big telescope. It looked just like a cartoon of Saturn.

  9. says

    On our trip to New Zealand we didn’t have the time or opportunity to get to Wellington and the North Island. It is definitely on our agenda for a future visit. It’s too bad you didn’t get a chance to see through the telescope but an observatory is always a cool place to visit.

  10. says

    As teachers, we love this sort of educational travel. If ever we find ourselves in Wellington, you can rest assured it will be on our list. Love the finding South bit!

    • says

      Go! I hope it’s as cool as Carter. We have been to several around the world. I love learning about the stars. Of course it’s much easier when I understand the language.

  11. says

    We always try to include a bit of learning during our travels with the kids. Planetariums are such great places to visit and this one looks wonderful especially with kids in tow. Love that interactive way to find South with the stars. That may still take me awhile to do outdoors. That telescope is impressive!

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