The Southern Cross constellation is one of the striking features of the southern hemisphere sky. It is one of the first star patterns that New Zealand children learn to recognise. The 16th-century European navigators who sailed into southern seas perceived it as a symbol of their Christian faith. The Southern Cross is evocative of place or origin to many peoples, appearing on national flags, company logos and memorials in New Zealand and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere.
Flags that fly the Southern Cross
Depicted either as four or five stars, the Southern Cross features on the national flags of New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. It also appears on the Australian flags of Victoria, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory, and on the flag of Chile’s Magallanes region. The flag of the Southern Common Market, the South American trading bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, also depicts the constellation.
When New Zealand soldiers sailed off to to fight in South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, they were singing: ‘We are the boys of the Southern Cross, our stars shine on our flags’. Over a century later the constellation continues to be relevant to nationhood and national honour. It is depicted on the New Zealand Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, unveiled in 2004. Featured on the lid of the tomb, the stars are seen to have guided the warrior back to New Zealand from distant battlefields.
The Southern Cross as a name
It pays to be specific when using the term Southern Cross in New Zealand, for apart from its astronomical association, the name has been used for planes, boats, newspapers, and numerous commercial ventures.
The first aeroplane to cross the Tasman Sea, in September 1928, was the Southern Cross, a three-engine Fokker, flown by Charles Kingsford Smith and C. T. P. Ulm.
A number of ships have been named Southern Cross, but perhaps the most famous was the Shaw Savill passenger liner that brought assisted immigrants from Great Britain to New Zealand in the mid-1950s and 1960s.
Two national newspapers have been published under the name: a successful paper from colonial days, which merged with the New Zealand Herald in 1876; and a short-lived Labour Party daily (1946–51).
Once visible to ancient Greek astronomers, the stars of the Southern Cross disappeared from their view due to the rotating earth wobbling like a top (precessing).
Although the Southern Cross is the smallest of the 88 official constellations, it has achieved prominence from its value as a navigational aid. It is visible throughout the year in southern skies. The four brightest stars form a distinctive cross with a long axis and a short crossbar. A fifth star, located just below the crossbar, is often included in depictions of the constellation. This star is fainter than the others and not always visible. On clear nights, away from city lights, those with good eyesight should be able to see 34 stars in the Southern Cross. A telescope reveals thousands more.
There are different traditional interpretations of the Southern Cross in New Zealand, and it is known by at least eight different names in Māori. Tainui Māori saw it as an anchor, named Te Punga, of a great sky canoe, while to Wairarapa Māori it was Māhutonga – an aperture in Te Ikaroa (the Milky Way) through which storm winds escaped.