Weekend leisure: It's written in the stars

By Danielle Wright

Inspired by Matariki, Danielle Wright learns to navigate by the stars at Auckland's Stardome.

Children in the Auckland Stardome Observatory. Photo / Supplied
Children in the Auckland Stardome Observatory. Photo / Supplied

As I take my seat, I worry that celestial navigation might be a little over my head. And it is - on a 360-degree immersive theatre over my head.

"People are scared of the subject title, but it's not technical, we just teach the basics so people can impress their friends at the next barbecue, and potentially save their life," says Colin James, the show's presenter for the past eight years.

The room is filled with boaties, kayakers and trampers, people wanting to learn survival skills and those who seem on a more romantic date night than the usual movie outing.

"Some people are keen to learn the principles of celestial navigation and others just like looking at the stars," says James, who became interested in astronomy as a child and later, while in the airforce.

"One of the first purposes of planetariums was to train RAF bomber pilots how to fly over Germany navigating by the night stars," says James.

Tonight, we discover that stars are not stationary objects, but move through the sky at night as the sun does during the day. They move at 15 degrees an hour, so you can use your hand to calculate how long it will be before a particular star sets on the horizon.

Incredibly, it takes 23 hours and 56 minutes for stars to move around the celestial poles, meaning the stars will rise four minutes earlier each night - that's two hours a month, or 24 hours each year, making the whole cycle repeat itself perfectly. If it wasn't for this four minutes, we would see the same stars in the same position each night.

James takes us on a journey through the seasons, through the different hemispheres and to each of the poles, all set to beautiful filmic music - if there had been a cup of hot chocolate to start the show, I probably would have fallen asleep in the warm room and comfortable reclining seats.

We're given the history of stars and told about the earliest cultures, who began to identify celestial objects with gods and spirits, and related those objects (and their movements) to phenomena such as rain, drought, seasons and tides, as well as creating calendars based around the sun and moon.

Back then, the night sky must have been looked upon as our iPhones are now - something that informs us about everything.

We're shown some of the major constellations and told how it's no wonder this region of the world is sometimes referred to as "Downunder" because everything has been named over in the northern hemisphere so the constellations are upside down - we spot Orion doing a handstand and an upside-down teapot.

James takes the overhead show through the different seasons, all with their own night sky formations. It's a strange feeling examining something so mysterious, yet so ordered.

"It's always a popular show," says James. "People like to learn about the stars - the mystery, knowing the unknown and the more you learn about them the more they have to reveal. With celestial navigation you don't need any instruments, just your eyes and hands."

He tells us about the stars burning at different temperatures and how the closest star to us isn't the brightest, as well as about the small but distinctive Matariki star cluster, also known as the Pleiades, Seven Sisters, Subaru and Messier 45.

Your eyes are immediately drawn to it and when it appears in the north eastern pre-dawn sky in late May/early June it marks the start of a new phase of life, and the start of the Maori calendar.

"Your eyes are immediately drawn to it. It's in the morning sky during winter and a popular way of starting the Maori calendar," says James.

The evening course doesn't cover planets, but we do get to take a peek through the giant telescopes outside afterwards and we see Saturn and Mars clearly, like tiny stickers in extreme detail plastered on the inside of the giant telescopes - they look so unreal and perfectly formed.

"If you lie down for 10 minutes you should see a shooting star," says James, who tells me they are not falling from the sky at all and really not the slightest bit as romantic as they are made out to be - just sky dust, nothing bigger than a thumb nail.

Though some parts of the course may have been over my head, I managed to retain the knowledge of how to find north and use it on unfamiliar roads as we drive to the Far North later in the week, playing a kind of celestial Spotto with the kids (my version of showing off at the barbecue).

Knowing a little about celestial navigation, on dark roads, made me feel reassured we were heading in the right direction. It didn't save a life, but it did provide peace of mind.

The starry night

Celestial Navigation is from 8pm-10pm on the last Tuesday of each month. It costs $25 per person at Stardome Observatory, One Tree Hill Domain. Ph (09) 624 1246.

- NZ Herald

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