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The Science Behind a New Zealand Celebration

The Science Behind a New Zealand Celebration

Astronomy has ancient connections to cultures around the world, including New Zealand. This month, New Zealanders can celebrate their own connection with the stars with the rise of a very 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 28, 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 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. Astronomy Educator David Britten explains “When you look 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.”

While different Iwi have different names for the brightest stars in the cluster the most common are Matariki, Ururangi, Waipuna-ā-rangi, Waita, Waiti, Tupu-ā-rangi and Tupu-ā-nuku.

The ‘Matariki Dawn’ Planetarium show at Stardome showcases the legend of Papatuanuku and Ranginui, Rona and the Moon, and Matariki. In the 360° immersive show you’ll learn more about these legends, why Matariki falls on a different day every year and how ancient Māori used the Moon as a calendar and how it influenced agricultural and festive activities. ‘Matariki Dawn’ plays at 7pm Wednesday to Sunday 28 June – 13 July. See www.stardome.org.nz for further details.

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