Our night sky has the power to connect us all, even while separated by physical distance.
Stargazing is unique in that it allows us to view something trillions of kilometres away, without needing to travel anywhere. We might not be able to see all our loved ones right now in person, but there is some comfort in knowing that if we look up into the night sky, we are viewing the same stars. As Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram sang, it helps to think we're sleeping underneath the same big sky.
Thanks to the lockdown, there is not as much light pollution, with fewer vehicles on the roads and quieter cities. That means the night sky is appearing much brighter and clearer, making it an ideal time to get to know some of the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.
Naomi Arnold, author of Southern Lights, shares tips for getting started in stargazing during the lockdown.
What do you need for stargazing?
First of all, you need to pick a clear night with as little moon as possible.
"Just Google 'moon phases' to find a calendar, and choose a night that has a new moon, no moon, or one that rises late in the evening," explains Arnold. The reflection from the moon lightens the night sky, which makes it harder to see as many stars.
Plan to be outside for at least an hour, so dress warmly. "Stargazing involves quite a bit of standing, sitting, or lying around," she says. "Take a blanket or sleeping bag, or have a night picnic with hot drinks and a snack. Get a pair of binoculars if you have some, and because torchlight or phone backlights ruin your night vision, find yourself a red light of some sort - such as a bike light or headlamp - so you can see where you're going."
Your eyes will need a bit of time to adjust to the dark, so spread out the blanket in the garden, lie down and look up. "As your eyes begin to adjust to the dark you'll be able to see more and more in the sky every minute."
Do I need a telescope?
Arnold says you can still see plenty without a telescope. "Even a cheapie pair of binoculars is surprisingly good at helping you see some more detail and maybe getting your first close look at the moon if it's out."
"But your first glimpse of a globular cluster, Jupiter's famous spot or Saturn's rings through a telescope is something special."
Arnold recommends downloading an astronomy or stargazing app, or print a PDF of the month's evening sky chart. The Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand has one available online.
You can also join up to Living By the Stars With Professor Rangi Mātamua on Facebook for a local resource on tātai arorangi (Māori astronomy).
What can you see in New Zealand at the moment?
Right now, the brightest star in the sky is Sirius, the Dog Star, and the second-brightest is Canopus. Arnold says Crux, which we typically know as the Southern Cross, and Alpha and Beta Centauri - the two Pointers - are quite high in the sky, to the southwest. You might also be able to pick out a dark patch, a cloud of gas and dust called the Coalsack Nebula.
"Orion is setting in the west at the moment as we move towards winter, so as well as the familiar Pot, pick out the bright stars of bluish Rigel and orangish Betelgeuse to complete the constellation."
Early evening, you might be able to see Venus, which sets not long after the sun. "By the end of April, golden Jupiter will rise about 10.30pm and Saturn half an hour later, followed by Mars."
If you are in a part of New Zealand away from the cities, with very clear dark skies, you might also be able to see the large and small Magellanic Clouds in the southwest, which look like ghostly smears in the sky.
What about the Southern Lights?
The aurora australis, or the Southern Lights, are a much more rare sighting.
But Arnold says it's fun to keep an eye on websites that forecast how the aurora might behave. These are based on the Kp index, which measures aurora strength between 0 and 9, with 9 being a major geomagnetic storm, with strong aurora visible. These can help show how far away the aurora activity is from New Zealand's skies.
Where are the best places in NZ to view the night sky?
There are several International Dark Sky Association recognised sites in New Zealand, should you be lucky enough to be in lockdown in one of them. They are Aotea/Great Barrier Island, Aoraki Mackenzie and Rakiura/Stewart Island.
"You can go to lightpollutionmap.info to get a reasonable estimate of the light pollution of your local area and see where would be good to see the stars," Arnold says.