There’s a Tarantula in the Sky

New Zealand is considered an astronomer’s paradise, of course when away from its few large cities, especially on the South Island.  So, last year (2019) when Nancy and I made the trip I was pretty pumped.  The southern hemisphere sky has treats we don’t see above the equator. I had packed a light observing kit, you know, travel light and enjoy the journey.  I was excited about turning my 300mm telephoto lens for photography into a double duty optic.  It became a nice telescope after attaching an adapter I fabricated.  Everything fit into my photo gear backpack.  This was going to be great!

As part of our trip we scheduled two nights at Lake Tekapo on the South Island, an International Dark Sky Association recognized dark sky location.  Our first day and night in Lake Tekapo…thunderstorms and high wind, so cool my heels.  Morning came and it was brilliant, bright and clear.  We explored the area, visiting other waterways and sights, then drove along Lake Pukaki and had lunch on Mount Cook.

As night came, we set up behind some shrubs, to get away from the few obnoxious “security” lights people were using.  I remember it, Nancy was flabbergasted, we couldn’t stop staring at the Milky Way. Wow!

Well, the Milky Way was secondary.  The main attraction for me were two big and bright smudges next to the Milky Way.  The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They are two satellite galaxies of our Milky Way galaxy and look stunning in juxtaposition!  They made the trip for me.  We were lucky to have that night because it clouded up for a week and then the Moon was so bright it made observing less fun.  I happily did get some nice shots of the Milky Way with its companion galaxies.

What about the Tarantula?  It’s a major feature of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).  Also known as 30 Doradus, the Tarantula is a nebula, a star nursery like the Orion Nebula, M42, but much larger.  If the LMC were placed where M42 is, it would occupy 20% of our sky!  It would be bright, even causing shadows at night!  The many stars evolving in the Tarantula tend to be massive and very bright, and it’s the most luminous starburst region among our local group of galaxies.

The LMC has another distinctive feature, SN1987A.  Discovered on February 23, 1987, it was a supernova and the first one recorded in 1987, hence the A.  SN1987A’s importance is that it was the closest supernova to be observed in recent history and found early in its progress.  Now all that’s left is a neutron star and ever-expanding shells of luminous gas and dust, glowing as they are ionized by the neutron star’s radiation.

What’s in the Sky?

November 13; dawn; east-southeast:  A thin waning crescent Moon, Mercury below, Venus and Spica upper right, make a lovely trapezoid in the horizon sky.