Astronomy in Australia
Written by John Settingiano – School Programs Specialist
While preparing for my December 2018 trip to Australia, I was much more concerned with how many pairs of swim shorts to pack than what stars I might see at night. I was going to kick back, relax, and lather on the sunscreen.
Four days into my trip I found myself in the middle of the Australian National Botanical Gardens at 11:00pm. I was there to watch a film in the gardens (something like a drive-in theatre but without the cars) and as the night progressed, out came the stars. As the film finished, I glanced upward. Right away I recognized the constellation Orion in the northern part of the sky, thanks to three distinct stars that make up his belt. I spotted Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star the occupies the space that would be considered Orion’s armpit, only this time, Betelgeuse was not where it was supposed to be. The star was at the bottom right of Orion rather than its usual place at the top left.
After a few seconds of confusion and second guessing, I realized that I was in fact looking at Orion, only this time, it was upside down! Or rather, it was upside down compared to how I was accustomed to viewing Orion in the Northern Hemisphere.
This was the moment that I fully grasped that I was on the other side of planet Earth. I was in the Southern Hemisphere, it was summer in December, and the stars were upside down. After this, I started paying closer attention to Australia’s night sky.
The eight lunar phases that I am used to seeing were also reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. What I recognized as a “waning crescent moon” was actually a “waxing crescent moon” in Australia. In the Northern Hemisphere, the light appears to grow across the moon from right to left, while in the Southern Hemisphere, the light appears to grow across the moon from left to right. It’s amazing to see the moon and the stars you think you know, moving backwards and upside down.