A Guide to the Night Sky: Existential Crises Have Never Been So Accessible

A Guide to the Night Sky: Existential Crises Have Never Been So Accessible

The night sky is like your lectures: you catch yourself saying “I should go look at that sometime” and rarely actually follow up. However, this article is not here to tell you to watch your lectures. Lectures cost around a box and a half ($35) apiece if you’re a domestic student, and you would never throw away a box and a half. Nay, rather, you should go look at that glorious dark sky every once and a while (while you still can) because it’s actually pretty freaking sick. We chatted to some astro-pros about stars, dark skies, and whether Elon Musk is about to ruin it for all of us.
There was a full lunar eclipse in May of 2021. Those that were here remember a great pilgrimage to Signal Hill, Mount Cargill, and other high-up places to see the eclipse; it was wonderful to have that sense of comradery from North D. The pilgrimage was born out of pure excitement, seeing as the Uni doesn’t offer a degree in Astronomy, only Physics170, which might qualify to be one of the worst potential interest papers you could ever take. Spoiler: it’s not learning about aliens, it’s just physics. That’s in the name, though.
But that’s one of the best parts of stargazing: you don’t actually have to know anything about anything to sit there and enjoy the views. Naomi Arnold, author of Southern Nights and a keen astronomer, says astronomy is accessible because “you can drive or be driven to any dark spot and enjoy the night sky. Just take hot drinks and sleeping bags to stay warm”.

Her first experience with stargazing was looking for Halley’s comet. And, while she can’t remember the comet itself, she remembers the feeling it gave her. “It was the same feeling that you got as a small kid when you were allowed out at night in the pitch black, but it was coupled with that vertigo.” She described how we all “have some times when you pause and find yourself in a moment’s contemplation, zoom out, and consider you’re standing on a spinning ball in space. I think that awe of the natural world has never left me”. Aotearoa offers this special mix of existential dread and interconnected immense awe when looking into our night sky, especially with our dark sky reserves. 
In 2017, Aotea Great Barrier Island was named the first dark sky island sanctuary, and 4,300 square kilometres in the Mackenzie High Country of Te Waipounamu recently became the largest reserve of this type in the entire world. Having zones like these, which purposefully avoid light pollution, allows your eyes to dilate so you can see more stars than normal. With just a four hours’ drive north of Dunedin and an $18 campsite fee at White Horse Hill Campground, you don’t even have to tramp to see some of the clearest skies in the world, filled with more stars than many people will ever get to see in their lifetime. 
But even if you don’t take a weekend trip up to Aoraki, you can get into quite dark places very quickly. Ian Griffin, current director of the Otago Museum and internationally renowned astronomer who has discovered 25 minor planets amongst other asteroids and auras, said that we’re lucky to have our unique geographical position. “You can actually see the Milky Way from the Octagon, which is amazing for a city, but you only need to go 15 minutes’ drive away from it and you get some really, really dark skies”, Ian said. Anywhere on the Otago Peninsula is great for dark skies, but Ian specifically pointed to Hooper’s and Papanui inlets. 
The other great draw of Ōtepoti is the Southern Lights, known as aurora australis or Tahu-nui-a-rangi. “It can be absolutely stunning down here, but it can also be very disappointing” Ian said, which can be applied to most things in Dunedin. “If it’s a dim display you can’t see any colours, so you see this thing that looks like a white cloud near the horizon”. However, when the geomagnetic activity is high, “it can be extraordinary. You get these lovely greens and reds, so I think the aurora is one of the unsung hidden gems in this part of the world” Ian says. The auroras are only going to be getting better in the coming years as well. “The sun goes through a cycle every 11 years where you get a climb in the number of auroras and we are actually approaching a maximum in about two- or three-years’ time, so the auroras will be getting better.”
There are a plethora of websites and groups that will help you see this aurora if you haven’t already crossed it off your Uni bucket list. Aurora Australis Dunedin Nowcast, a website run by the physics department at the Uni, tells you how strong the activity is, directs you to weather forecasts to make sure it isn’t cloudy, and gives you recommended locations to see it. There are also other Facebook groups such as ‘Aurora Australis New Zealand Current Alerts’ with over 20k members and even smaller ones just for Ōtepoti. 
If you want to dive even deeper into the astronomical world, the Otago Museum has the only 3D planetarium in Australasia that does live shows almost every day, including one by the coolest name ever seen since the beloved series Sharknado. Starting from October 1st, ‘Spacetronauts: Epic Eruptions’ will be at the planetarium on weekends, and we will too – because we’re not dumb enough to miss epic freaking space eruptions. 

Both Ian and Naomi recommend the Dunedin Astronomical Society, a very welcoming group of people who are eager to look at and photograph the night sky, as well as the Beverly-Begg Observatory which Naomi recommends as it “is open to the public during the colder months and they also have an Astronomy 101 course which can teach you more – including astrophotography.”  
Having stargazing opportunities so readily available is something a lot of people can take for granted. But our time with these beautiful night skies is not forever guaranteed. Your time with these skies could be cut short by a personal decision to move to a larger city with more light pollution, or, as both Naomi and Ian brought up, it could be completely out of your hands. The proliferation of satellites, including Elon Musk’s Starlink (designed to provide internet access to rural areas via a global web of satellites), can get in the way of the stars – even from a dark sky reserve.
Ian, who is “not blind to the benefits of the internet” believes Starlink is a massive problem for astronomy as “those satellites are already interfering with professional astronomy observations. The Vera Rubin telescope has been designed to survey the entire sky several times a night finding asteroids that might hit the Earth, and pretty much every image being taken by that telescope is being impacted by trails already with just 3,000 satellites out there” Ian said. There are plans to add another 37,000 of Musk’s satellites into low-earth orbit. These satellite “trails” are a problem for real astronomy, but they can impact even the most unsuspecting student, too. One student we interviewed said that he’d gone into Mt. Aspiring National Park to take acid and look at the night sky, but “completely lost his mind” when he watched “twin lines of what I assume were Starlink satellites being launched march across the sky”. The student said that “I had no idea if they were real or not… It made me wonder if Elon Musk was going to make it impossible for me to see the stars ever again. It really fucked me up. I was distraught, and I’m still not over it.”
It’s not like we have a say in the launching of Starlink, either. The only regulator with any jurisdiction over Starlink is the Federal Communication Commission [FCC] in the US, and according to Ian, “they don't really care about the night sky, it's not even one of the parameters that they use in approving the satellite constellation”. That’s right, the governmental group that no one knew about until they tried to take away net neutrality in 2017 is the sole regulating force on what Elon can put between you and the stars. 

“The fact here is that there's been no democratic process,” Ian said. He then went on to compare the whole situation to the tragedy of the commons: “The first person to get a resource and exploit it can potentially ruin it for everyone else” he said, especially when there is basically zero regulation around the issue. With space now being fought over by a few billionaires, the tragedy of the commons has shifted from pastures and farmers to literally endless space and famously opulent individuals. “It is literally the Wild West out there,” said Ian. 
Naomi agreed, saying “No-one, let alone megalomaniacal billionaires, should be allowed to destroy astronomical research and pollute our shared global night sky to the extent that he’s planning.” Yet, Elon’s cult-like following or ‘Musketeers’ as they call themselves, “stifle the debate saying ‘no, it’s not a problem’,” said Ian. 
There’s also something called Kessler syndrome. When the amount of junk in orbit around Earth reaches a point where it impacts itself, it just creates more and more space debris, causing big problems for satellites, astronauts, and mission planners. It takes only one collision or accident for it to happen, and while Ian acknowledged that Musk and his team “are technically very competent”, he wondered “if it's unregulated and uncontrolled, and if something goes wrong, it won't be Musk that has to clear things up, it will be the rest of us”. He just “genuinely hopes we don't end up having to clear up a big mess in a few years’ time”.
In the meantime, the night sky is still mostly intact and entirely, objectively cool. If you’re as talented as Ian, you can name minor planets like he did. One for his wife, another for Bruce Springsteen (whose music was playing when they discovered it), or another named for the former manager of his favourite footy team, Arsenal. Ōtepoti is so highly blessed with resources that if you want to learn more generally about the night sky and/or astrophotography, you can reach out to the planetarium, the observatory, the astronomical society, or anyone else you can find. And for all those out there who might be more curious about the history of astronomy, Naomi’s book Southern Nights is a fantastic read. 

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2022.
Posted 6:47pm Sunday 9th October 2022 by Keegan Wells .