10 Sights Visible In The Southern Sky With The Naked Eye

With only 12 percent of the world’s population living south of the Equator,the jewels in the southern night sky can stay half-secret. Some stars, constellations, and even galaxies remain hidden from the sight of stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere, and their stories are unknown.

Even better, many of these southern sights can be viewed without a telescope. All you need is a clear night away from a city. Think deserts in Africa and Australia. Think high mountaintops in New Zealand. Think isolated islands . . . well, pretty much all over. There is a lot of space in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Southern Cross

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The Southern Cross, officially known as Crux, is the smallest of the 88 recognized constellations and still one of the best-known. It appears on the flags of Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa.The constellation has a distinct cross shape formed by four stars, although depictions frequently include a (smaller) fifth bright star, Epsilon Crucis.

Crux was named by Western explorers, who, being Christian, likened the shape to the crucifix and designated it as a southern feature. However, many cultures already present in the Southern Hemisphere perceived it differently. For example, in New Zealand’s Maori culture, interpretations include an anchor or the stopper of the hole from which storm winds blew.

Alpha Centauri

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Though we see what appears to be one star, Alpha Centauri is a star system made up of three stars: two locked in a binary orbit and a third star orbiting around that, named Proxima Centauri. These stars are considerably smaller than the ones we see surrounding them. However, they appear a similar size, as they are so much closer. As its name suggests, Proxima Centauri is the nearest star in the sky after our own Sun.

Proxima Centauri is still a considerable distance away at 4.22 light-years. That starlight we can see is still over four years old, and we are nowhere close to getting friendly with this neighbor. The furthest reach of any mission so far is that of Voyager 1. In 41 years, not only is it nowhere close to a light-year away, but it’s not even a light-day away. Currently, NASA has it tracked at just under 20 light-hours from the Earth. When it comes to space, proximity is relative.

Beta Centauri

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Though quite literally outshone by its neighbor, the bright star sitting just by Alpha Centauri is worth considering, too. First of all, it is not actually a neighbor. Alpha Centauri is far closer to us here on Earth than it is to Beta Centauri, which is 348.83 light-years from us. Beta Centauri is simply much bigger and brighter. So although it sits much farther back in the sky, it appears only a little dimmer. When looking out at the stars, it is easy to forget they exist in this 3-D space above us, not tacked onto a 2-D sheet.

Jointly, Alpha and Beta Centauri create the “pointer stars,” as they can lead, or “point,” you to the Southern Cross. Make a line from Alpha to Beta, and you will guide your eyes straight to it. Although this cross is pretty obvious once you have located it, things can get confusing when you stare up into a vast field of dots—there are many crosses. One such asterism has even gained the name “False Cross” for catching so many stargazers out, partly due to creating a larger cross than the true one.

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