Hidden Wonders of the Southern Sky

Here in southern Arizona, we can theoretically see 92.4% of the celestial sphere. I say “theoretically” because atmospheric extinction, light pollution, local topography, and obstructions limit the amount of the celestial sphere that we can see well. Also, far southern objects (down to δ = -58° at φ = 32° N) spend very little time above our horizon each day.

Practically speaking, then, we see somewhat less than 92% of all that there is to see from spaceship Earth.

Percent of the Celestial Sphere Visible

\% = 50\left [ 1-sin\left ( \left|\varphi \right| -90^{\circ}\right ) \right ]

where |φ| is the absolute value of your latitude in degrees

What are the most prominent objects we are missing, and what objects that we can see are they closest to?

Alpha Centauri

Never visible north of latitude 27° N, the nearest star system beyond our solar system is Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri A & B are bright stars, having a visual magnitude of 0.0 and +1.3, respectively, and in 2023 they are separated by just 8 arcseconds, about 1/4 of the angular separation between Albireo A & B. While Alpha Centauri A & B—which orbit each other once every 79.8 years—lie just 4.36 ly away, a faint red dwarf companion, Proxima Centauri (shining at magnitude +11.1), is even closer at 4.24 light years. It is not yet known whether Proxima Centauri, discovered in 1915, is gravitationally bound to Alpha Centauri A & B, or just presently passing through the neighborhood. Proxima is a full 2.2° away (over four moon-widths) from Alpha Centauri A & B.

When Arcturus (α Boo) and Zubenelgenubi (α Lib) are crossing our celestial meridian, so are Alpha & Proxima Centauri below the southern horizon.

Large Magellanic Cloud

The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), the largest satellite galaxy of our Milky Way galaxy and easily visible to the unaided eye, lies directly below our southern horizon when Rigel has crossed the meridian and Bellatrix is preparing to do so.

Small Magellanic Cloud

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), the second-largest satellite galaxy of the mighty Milky Way lies underneath our southern horizon when M31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy, crosses the meridian near the zenith.

47 Tucanae

The 2nd brightest globular cluster in the sky (after Omega Centauri) is impressive 47 Tucanae. It is just 2.3° west and a little north of the Small Magellanic Cloud, so crosses the meridian below our horizon just as M31 is nearing the meridian.

Eta Carinae Nebula

Four times larger and brighter than the Orion Nebula, NGC 3372, the Eta Carinae Nebula, is a spectacular star-forming region containing a supermassive (130 – 180 M) binary star (Eta Carinae) that may go supernova at any time. When Leo the Lion is straddling the meridian, the Eta Carinae Nebula sneaks across as well.

Any other spectacular objects I should be including that are south of declination -58°? If so, please post a comment here.