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Magical Matariki

10th June 2013

Magical Matariki

The cluster of stars known as Matariki in New Zealand are a prominent sight in the night sky from most parts of the globe, and they hold special significance to different cultures worldwide. Known as the Pleiades, or the seven sisters, to the ancient Greeks, and as Matali’i, Makali’i, Mataliki and Mataiki in other Polynesian cultures, legends about the cluster abound.

Astronomers worldwide know Matariki by its less catchy astronomical designation of ‘M45’, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a number - or that it holds any less significance to scientists. Stardome Educator David Britten explains “while Matariki looks like a cluster of just six or seven stars to the naked eye, it’s actually a hotbed of about a thousand stars in an ‘open star cluster’, a group of stars that are gravitationally bound to each other after forming from the same nebula in the relatively recent past. Matariki is a juvenile in stellar terms at a youthful 100 million years old. The brightest stars in the Matariki cluster are burning very hot. These blue-white stars will explode as supernovas over the coming few million years, providing the material to build planets and new Solar Systems in the cluster. Observing Matariki is like looking back in time to when our Sun and Solar System formed in a star cluster similar to Matariki some 5 billion years ago. Our Sun’s hot neighbours produced the elements we are made of, and all the stars in the cluster drifted away into the Milky Way Galaxy, leaving our Solar System to develop alone.”

Every year during May, Matariki is obscured by the Sun’s glare and disappears from view for about a month. Its reappearance in the pre-dawn sky in early June, coupled with the first crescent Moon of the period, signals the Maori New Year and the beginning of the Matariki festival. Ancient Māori measured the passing of time and seasons using a lunar calendar. Each monthly cycle of the Moon is 29.53 days, this leaves the year about 11 days short of the 365-day solar year, so each year it needs to be re-set using the stars to prevent the seasons slipping. Most Maori achieved this by re-starting the year with reference to the first reappearance of Matariki from behind the Sun in the early dawn sky. In some areas of New Zealand, the lunar calendar is re-set using other celestial bodies such as Te Puanga (Rigel) or Tautoro (Orion’s Belt). This year the first crescent Moon falls on 10th June, and the Auckland Matariki festival starts on 22nd June when dawn visibility of the cluster improves as it gets higher in the sky.

Matariki features heavily in the New Zealand school curriculum, which gives Auckland’s Stardome Observatory & Planetarium the opportunity to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with keen young stargazers. The Stardome Planetarium can create a stunning digital projection of any part of the sky, and even zoom audiences out from Earth to Matariki giving the chance to see a virtual representation of the cluster whatever the weather during the daytime or evenings.

The Matariki Festival in Auckland begins on 22nd June with a dawn Karakia at the summit of Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill). Following the dawn Karakia the Maungakiekie-Tāmaki Local Board is hosting a range of morning family activities at the Stardome Observatory and Planetarium. Find out more about the Matariki Festival at www.matarikifestival.org.nz

The Stardome Planetarium show ‘Matariki Dawn’ suitable for family viewing, tells the story of Matariki through dialogue and images projected on the planetariums domed ceiling, and plays at 7pm every night from 26th to 30th of June. See www.stardome.org.nz for more details.

ENDS

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