“No torches, please,” says Beth, one of our guides, as she kills the engine and glances in the rearview mirror. We bundle off the minibus; it’s so dark I can hardly see my feet. The other guide, Greg, has been running Astro Tours out of Broome, Western Australia since 1995. He looks quite the Aussie bushman: long beard, denim shorts, and Blundstones (a classic Australian workboot). It takes awhile for my night vision to kick in, and it isn’t until halfway through his talk that I notice the line of telescopes, all pointing at different areas of the sky.
I’ve never seen so many stars. The Milky Way stretches above in full high-definition, the clarity is incredible, it feels impossibly close. Beth’s earlier request makes sense now. The southern sky looks like the photos of space you see in science books: a defiantly black canvas peppered with twinkles and clusters of all sizes and luminosities.
“That bright star is Alpha Centauri,” said Greg, standing alongside me. “It’s actually two stars… you’ll be able to see when we look through the telescopes.
The view in Australia isn’t available everywhere in the world. In fact, you probably will see an entirely new sky whenever you travel any significant distance from your home base. Whether you can see the southern or northern night sky depends on your latitude – near the equator in places like Belize, you’re privileged to see both.
As Earth makes its daily rotation, orbits the sun, and witnesses the change of the seasons, our view of space changes along with the Earth, meaning that the time of night we can see certain stars in the sky is always shifting. Constellations that appear in the dawn sky at the end of summer will appear in the early evening sky during winter. (Constellations are generally associated with the seasons in which they appear in the evening sky.)
These changes happen slowly but have been guiding terrestrial rituals for centuries. Farmers have used the position of certain constellations to help them know when to plant and when to harvest. The Maya created narratives to explain the cyclical appearance of the formations they observed in the sky.
It’s difficult to find the remote locations that stargazing requires; few spots are completely devoid of artificial light these days. To visit many of the best stargazing spots, you’ll need to travel to relatively undeveloped marine or coastal environments.
The coral atolls of Belize are ideal places to turn your eyes to the sky, particularly on Lighthouse Reef which is some 50 miles from the mainland. The absence of industrial development in this part of the world and a celestial aspect that encompasses elements of both the southern and northern skies makes for a wonderfully dense and bright night sky. Also at these low latitudes — Belize is at 18 degrees north — the moon and planets pass virtually overhead rather than moving along in an arc near the horizon (as they do at the poles), making the whole viewing experience much more planetarium-like.
Here are a few constellations to look out for when stargazing in Belize:
The Southern Cross, or Crux, is the smallest of 88 constellations that fill the night sky but it is one of the most distinctive and easy-to-spot for an amateur stargazer. A nearby pair of stars called “The Pointers” (Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri) can help with locating The Crux. Its presence on the flags of a number of countries — Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa — also makes it a somewhat familiar sight.
The Centaurus constellation is one of the largest in the sky. It includes Alpha Centauri (one of “The Pointers”) and is said to resemble a Centaur, a half-man, half-horse beast from Greek mythology. The Southern Cross sits between its front and hind legs.
The Jewel Box is a star cluster within the Southern Cross constellation. It is located roughly 6,400 light years away and contains about 100 stars. The cluster can be seen with the naked eye but binoculars or a telescope will unveil its true colorful beauty.
In Belize, the famous Southern Cross is visible in the early evening during April and May. The Carina and Centaurus constellations are also easily viewable, along with the Carina Nebula and the Jewel Box cluster, all hidden from North America and Europe. Even if you’re not familiar with the night sky, or have no interest in astronomy, you’ll be mesmerized by the beauty of the stars in Belize. Once you know a few constellations to look out for, you’ll relish those evenings spent gazing up at the stars in a place where the conditions are right.