Observe the Milky Way

Winter skies bring glorious views of our own Milky Way galaxy to observers blessed with dark skies. For many city dwellers, their first sight of the Milky Way comes during trips to rural areas – so if you are traveling away from city lights, do yourself a favour and look up!

To observe the Milky Way, you need clear, dark skies, and enough time to adapt your eyes to the dark. Photos of the Milky Way are breathtaking, but they usually show far more detail and color than the human eye can see – that’s the beauty and quietly deceptive nature of long exposure photography. Take note that, even in dark skies, the Milky Way isn’t easily visible until it rises a bit above the horizon and the thick, turbulent air which obscures the view. The Milky Way is huge, but is also rather faint, and our eyes need time to truly adjust to the dark and see it in any detail. Try not to check your phone while you wait, as its light will reset your night vision. It is best to attempt to view the Milky Way when the Moon is at a new or crescent phase; you don’t want the Moon’s brilliant light washing out any potential views, especially since a full Moon is up all night.

Keeping your eyes dark adapted is especially important if you want to not only see the haze of the Milky Way, but also the dark lane cutting into that haze, stretching from the Southern Cross to Sagittarius. This dark detail is known as the Emu in the Sky and is seen more readily in very dark skies.

You are looking at massive clouds of galactic dust lying between Earth and the interior of the Milky Way. Other “dark nebulae” of cosmic clouds pepper the Milky Way, including the famous Coalsack, found in the constellation of Crux or the Southern Cross. Many cultures celebrate these dark clouds in their traditional stories along with the constellations and Milky Way.  

The Kamilaroi and Euahlayi peoples, and their neighbours, the Murrawarri and Ngemba, are an Aboriginal cultural grouping located in the northwest and north central of New South Wales.

Other than the Moon, the brightest object in the Australian night sky is the Milky Way, which at particular times like nowcan appear to stretch from horizon to horizon in a dark sky.  For the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi, this is the Warambul, meaning watercourse or river, and the place where everything once was, until the Universe was turned upside down and everything ended up on Earth.  Many of the creation beings are still to be found in the Warambul, and many objects and stories have mirror places on Earth.  Behind the Milky Way is Bulimah, the sky camp, home of the ancestors and where people go after their life on Earth.

Emu in the Sky

The Emu in the Sky is a well-known Indigenous astronomical constellation that is outlined by utilising the dark areas of the night sky, rather than the stars. It represents the spirit Emu, Gawarrgay, who stretches from its head in the Coal Sack under the Southern Cross, to the body in Scorpius.  Depending on the time of year, the Euahlayi People see the Emu with or without legs, and the Emu has strong connections to resource management and ceremony.  Under the Emu is Bandaarr, the Kangaroo, who faces away from the Emu, and also has strong ceremonial links

To find it, first locate the Southern Cross constellation above the southern horizon. Two bright stars directly above due south are “the Pointers” to the Southern Cross. The Southern Cross is always to the right of “the Pointers”. At present at the start of the night they are at their highest point in the southern sky.

To the left of the Southern Cross, try to find a dark oval shape, also known as the Coalsack. It is a dark nebula to the eye but a pair of binoculars will reveal many, many stars. This is the head of the Emu with the beak pointing downward. The long neck stretches to the left through the middle of “the Pointers”. The body and legs of the Emu stretch halfway across the horizon towards the east. Through the constellation of Scorpius.

Directly opposite and at his time below the Southern Cross and Pointer stars are two satellite galaxies known as the Magallenic Clouds.

These two dwarf galaxies so obvious in a dark sky from Australia, the “cotton-ball” Large and Small Magallenic Clouds in the sky directly opposite the Southern Cross. They are known n as Brolgas, or burraalga in Kamilaroi or parrulka in Euahlayi. The Small Magellanic Cloud is also known as a Wiringin or “clever man”, who separates people who have dies into initiated and non-initiated. The latter are sent to be reborn as spirit babies.

Emu in the Sky over Milroy Observatory