Astronomy has ancient connections to cultures around the world, including New Zealand. This June, New Zealanders can celebrate their connection with the stars with the rise of a special star cluster and the beginning of the Māori New Year.
The luminous Matariki cluster plays an important role in heralding in the new Māori year. The start of the festival begins this year on June 25, which is the night of the first crescent Moon after the first appearance of Matariki in the morning sky.
Matariki is the Māori name for the Pleiades star cluster. This group of stars is visible around the world, so it has many different names and myths and stories associated with it. The names the Pleiades and The Seven Sisters originate in ancient Greece, in Japan it is known as Subaru, Vikings referred to the cluster as Freyja’s Hens, and in scientific circles, it is called Messier 45.
The open star cluster which is part of the Taurus constellation is made up of seven main stars but contains around one thousand other stars. It’s visible for much of the year, except for the month of May when the glare of the Sun obscures the view. Matariki is a stunning star cluster located 410 light-years away, which is 100 times further than the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. One light-year is the distance light travels in a single year, which is about 10 trillion kilometres.
In astronomical terms, Matariki is a teenager. At a youthful 100 million years old it still has lots of action and developments to come. When looking up at Matariki, you’re looking at an environment that resembles the earliest period when our Sun and Solar System formed in a star cluster some 5 billion years ago. The brightest stars in Matariki are burning very hot, which gives them the blue-white colouring. Over the next few million years or so these stars will explode, producing the material that can create planets and entirely new solar systems.
As part of the celebrations, Stardome is screening the popular ‘Matariki Dawn’ show, which includes information on how to find Matariki and the animated tales of Rangi and Papatuanuku, and the story of Rona and the Moon.
Sit back and watch the tale of Rangi-nui, the sky father and Papa-tū-ā-nuku, the Earth mother who are locked in tight embrace. Their children, forced to live in darkness wonder what it would be like to live in the light. One son, Tane, takes it upon himself to separate the parents so the siblings can live in the light.
The story of Rona and the Moon explains how the shadows on the Moon came to be. Strong and beautiful Rona sets out to fetch water and trips in the darkness. She curses at Marama the Moon who responds by capturing Rona and holding her in punishment for her angry outburst.
This uniquely New Zealand planetarium show is screening at 7pm Wednesday to Thursday 1 June – Friday 30 June. Click here to book your seats!