Stunning photos of the night sky in one of the darkest places on Earth will make you want to visit New Zealand ASAP
- New Zealand is home to some of the darkest skies on Earth.
- The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is especially great for star gazing.
Urban dwellers know all to well that it's next to impossible to catch a glimpse of the Big Dipper or a shooting star under glaring city lights.
But in one of the darkest places on Earth — the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand — that's not an issue.
Aoraki is the second-largest dark sky reserve in the world, ranking at a level 2 on the nine-level Bortle Dark-Sky Scale for light pollution.
For comparison, big cities like Los Angeles are a level 8 or 9, and even remote places in the US like Yosemite National Park and The Great Smoky Mountains are still a level 3.
Stargazing enthusiasts eager to witness the many cosmic marvels Aoraki has to offer can take expert-led tours of the reserve.
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is an astrophotographer's paradise
We spoke with tour guide and astrophotographer Brian Bezalel and Igor Hoogerwerf, resident astronomer with Big Sky Stargazing at Hermitage Aoraki/Mount Cook, who have captured breathtaking images in one of the only places left that show us what the night sky looked like before light pollution took over.
First up is Mount Cook Road:
"Mount Cook Road — also known as State Highway 80 — traverses through some of the darkest skies on Earth as visitors head up to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park," Bezalel told Insider.
"The Milky Way is clearly visible to the naked eye, and the aurora australis can also be seen emerging from behind the mountains on the right," he added.
The brilliant glow of the aurora australis, aka Southern Lights, can be seen over the clouds, in the long-exposure photo above of the northern end of Lake Pukaki within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve.
As with the Northern Lights, this vibrant spectacle happens when gases in the Earth's atmosphere like oxygen and nitrogen collide with electrically charged solar particles and emit light as a result.
You can also spot two galaxies in this photo: the Large Magellanic Cloud and Small Magellanic Cloud sit in the upper right corner as white, ghostly smudges. These two irregular galaxies, which are 16,000 light years and 190,000 light years away, respectively, are only visible to the unaided eye from dark skies in the Southern Hemisphere.
Here's a closer look at the Large Magellanic Cloud, which appears as a green smudge across the sky:
This relatively small galaxy is home to over 30 billion stars. That includes R136a1, which has a mass 265 times that of the sun and is one of the largest and brightest stars on record.
Bezalel used a long lens, star tracker, and long exposures to capture this image. On a moonless night in the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, though, he says you can easily capture the Large Magellanic Cloud using just a cell phone camera — although you likely won't see as much detail.
Beautiful aurorae in the Southern Hemisphere are also called the Southern Lights
After Hoogerwerf's discovered a strong aurora in the forecast on one February night, he set up his camera at sunset next to Tasman Bridge, which offers a clear view toward the south.
Fortunately, he managed to capture the aurora's impressive show around 11 p.m. while shooting a timelapse. The Southern Cross, an iconic constellation only visible from south of the equator, can also be seen above the aurora just to the right of center.
The M83 Galaxy is also known as the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy and located in the constellation Hydra:
This spiral galaxy may be significantly smaller than our own, but is producing stars at a much faster rate. The blue-green clumps you see swirling around the outer edges are clusters of hot, young stars.
The Orion Nebula is bright enough to see with the naked eye
At only 1,500 light years away, the Orion Nebula — a giant cloud of gas and dust where stars form — is bright enough to see with the naked eye.
But Bezalel noted that without a telescope or binoculars, it'll appear as a faint, fuzzy gray patch of light.
He uses specialized "star tracker" camera mounts to capture images of deep-space objects like the one of the Orion Nebula (above) taken on February 27, 2023.
The startracker mount moves his camera at the speed of the Earth's rotation, in the opposite direction of its rotation, to follow the stars' movement in the sky. This enables him to extend the shutter speed and capture clearer images.
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is one of the best places to see our Milky Way galaxy
According to Jason Menard, an executive at Mackenzie Tourism, The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is one of the best places to view the Milky Way — and that's pretty evident in this photo.
Note, however, that this is not what the Milky Way looks like to the unaided eye — Hoogerwerf used the timelapse technique to track the motion of the stars.
"I took this in the winter of 2021 from our Starbase at the Aoraki/Mt Cook Airport," Hoogerwerf told Insider. "I set up my camera looking north so I could shoot a moving Milky Way over the highest mountains, including Aoraki/Mt Cook. The very bright and large star to the right in the photo is the largest planet of our Solar System: Jupiter."
Since 2019, Elon Musk's SpaceX began launching a system of satellites into space — known as Starlink — to provide worldwide Internet access.
There are currently over 3,000 Starlink satellites in orbit, and they can occasionally be seen in the night sky as a bright chain of lights moving in a straight line.
"Airglow" is only seen in the clearest, darkest skies
Not to be confused with aurora, "airglow" is a dimmer luminescence that occurs when air molecules and atoms in the Earth's upper atmosphere absorb solar radiation and then release their excess energy as light.
Airglow is only visible with crystal clear, ultra-dark skies — and according to Bezalel, the lack of light pollution in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park offers an opportunity to spot this phenomenon from time to time.
Bezalel said he used long exposure times of at least 30 seconds to capture this image, which would not have otherwise been visible to the unaided eye.
Airglow can cover part or most of the sky, and the color can range from red and orange to yellow, green, and blue — depending on which elements in the atmosphere are producing energy in the form of light. Oxygen molecules produce the green light depicted here.
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