The Ultimate Guide to Observer the Winter Sky (Southern Hemisphere)

The Ultimate Guide to Observing the Winter Sky for Southern Sky

Winter in the Southern Hemisphere—when nights are long and snow blankets the landscape. The southern sky never ceases to amaze on these cold, crystal-clear nights. Fainter stars appear amidst an abundance of first-magnitude or brighter stars in the most popular and recognizable constellations.

If you are new to the hobby or have a little stargazing experience but want to learn more, this guide will help you familiarize yourself with some of the famous wintertime constellations. We will also highlight the most exciting celestial targets within these constellations. So put on your gloves and beanie, warm up some hot chocolate, bring out your new telescope or binoculars and let’s go exploring!



Top Wintertime Celestial Objects

Winter in the Southern Hemisphere is the time of the year to go stargazing! In this section, we’ll review the best objects you can find with an entry- to mid-level telescope (from about 60mm to 8” in aperture). Although there are not as many galaxies to see this time of year, there are many star clusters and a famous nebula to see. Here are some unforgettable southern sky objects:

Milky Way by Luke Vadekar

Milky Way 

During these long, cool nights, we can see the middle of our Milky Way Galaxy passing directly overhead. The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*, sits nearly 30 degrees south of the galactic equator. This means you can see it (and the rich star and dust clouds that arch away from it) best “down under” in places like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Chile. The winter Milky Way is stunning away from city lights on a moonless night. Binoculars or a telescope will let you explore the complex nebulosity, star clusters, and dust lanes. It’s also surprisingly easy to start your deep-sky astrophotography journey by taking photos of the winter Milky Way with your DSLR or smartphone.

LMC by Allan Kilgour

SMC by Allan Kilgour

Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC)

On a clear night when the Moon is not shining, these clouds appear as two irregular, detached patches of the Milky Way. They’re “circumpolar,” meaning they rotate around the celestial pole. That makes them visible all night in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

Well-known and recorded by indigenous peoples across several continents for thousands of years, the Magellanic clouds were first described by Europeans about 500 years ago, during Ferdinand Magellan’s first voyage around the world.

They’re two of three galaxies easily visible to the naked eye apart from our Milky Way. (The other is the Andromeda Galaxy, M31.) They’re the largest of around 50 satellite galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. 

While the SMC and LMC are wondrous to see with your eyes alone, a pair of binoculars or even a small telescope will quickly reveal a vast starfield with knots of ghostly nebulosity. These are denser clouds of dust and gas, glowing because hydrogen molecules have been excited by the light from nearby stars. They’re also regions where rapid star formation is underway, showing up as reddish-pink areas in long exposure color images. A great example is the Tarantula Nebula in the LMC. It’s one of the largest regions of star formation in our local family of galaxies.  

Carina Nebula by David Campion RASA 11 CGX Mount

The Carina Nebula (NCG 3372)

Possibly the most spectacular region of not just the southern sky but our entire night sky is the Carina Nebula. It’s one of the largest star nurseries in our local Milky Way region. It covers about four times as much sky and is considerably brighter than the famous Orion Nebula (M42). It also contains one of the most luminous nearby stars we can study, Eta Carinae. This star has about 100-150 times the mass of the Sun but is almost 4 million times brighter. Stars like Eta Carine are highly variable and have a vastly shorter life span than a stable, fainter star like our Sun.

You can spot the Carina Nebula as an incredibly dense patch of the Milky Way near the Southern Cross. It’s often best observed with binoculars or a low-power spotting scope. 

Southern Cross

The Southern Cross

Many folks don’t realize this bright collection of stars in the far southern sky is also the smallest constellation. Also known as Crux, it’s so familiar and cherished to those in the Southern Hemisphere that it appears on the national flags of five countries south of the equator. The Milky Way seems to run right through the Southern Cross. There’s a strange-looking dark patch where no stars can be seen in the rich starfield below one of the arms of the “cross.” This region is commonly called the “Coalsack,” one of the largest “dark nebulae” we can see.  It’s an area of interstellar gas and dust dense enough to block out the bright starlight from the Milky Way behind. In Australian Aboriginal astronomy, dark regions are often the subject of the constellation, as opposed to patterns of stars forming the body of the constellation in European cultures. The Coalsack, for example, forms the head of “The Emu,” a constellation used by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island astronomers to mark the seasons, help with agriculture and navigation, and pass on learning.

Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri

Our closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, is riding high in the winter night sky.  Even those with a basic knowledge of the southern night sky recognize it as the bottom of the two “pointers” to the Southern Cross.  While it appears to the naked eye as a single bright yellowish star, it’s one of the finest double stars in the sky. A small telescope will show it clearly as two stars, Alpha Centauri A and B. A third, much fainter star, Proxima Centauri, with three exoplanets orbiting it, completes the system. No exoplanets have been confirmed around either of the two larger stars yet. Unlike other parts of the sky, where you’re looking back at objects as they were thousands or even millions of years ago, Alpha Centauri appears to you as it did just over four years ago. If there are astronomers on one of the exoplanets gazing toward Earth, they may also be looking at you.

NGC 5128 by Thomas Kirkpatrick

Centaurus A (NGC 5128)

Another deep-sky object discovered by James Dunlop in 1826 from Sydney’s western suburbs, Centaurus A is visible in the sky during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter nights. It’s about four degrees away from the globular cluster Omega Centauri, making it a fascinating part of the night sky to explore with a telescope. It’s classified as a “peculiar galaxy,” likely due to the collision of a spiral and an elliptical galaxy. A dark lane, which you can see even with binoculars, splits its two halves. Centaurus A is a source of intense radio and x-rays and has an active galactic nucleus (AGN). While the light we see from most galaxies is the result of starlight across a range of frequencies, galaxies with an AGN have matter orbiting and falling onto a supermassive black hole at their centers. When this happens, we see higher amounts of luminosity than stars can produce alone. In the case of Centaurus A, the radio “jets” coming out from its center stretch into space over a million light years!


Star Clusters

Two of the brightest globular clusters visible from Earth are in the far southern skies.

Globular clusters are groups of thousands or millions of stars, all tightly bound together gravitationally. They look like lumpy balls of stars packed together so close they appear to be touching each other. They’re also some of the most spectacular objects to view through telescopes of any size. Typically, globular clusters appear around the edges of galaxies. The Milky Way seems to have about 150 of them, but there may be more hidden by the Milky Way itself. Apart from being fascinating objects to look at, globular clusters are stellar laboratories for astronomers to study the life cycles of stars.

Omega Centauri by Vesselin Petkov C9.25 Celestron 6.3 reducer

Omega Centauri (NCG 5139)

This is a true highlight of the winter southern skies for telescopes of all sizes!

The most massive globular cluster in the Milky Way, Omega Centauri, is so large and bright that it was known and catalogued in ancient times. It was hard to discern its details through early telescopes, so observers initially thought it to be a nebula. In 1826, astronomer James Dunlop described it as “a beautiful globe of stars.” Omega Centauri becomes a ball of stars even in binoculars, while more powerful telescopes start to reveal myriad stars. While the stars appear to touch each other, even in the densest part of the core, they’re still about 0.1 of a light-year apart—about 160 times the average distance from Earth to Pluto. 

47 Tucanae

47 Tucanae (NGC 104)

Often referred to as “47 Tuc,” this globular cluster is the second brightest in the skies. It’s even further south than Omega Centauri, near the SMC. It’s also one of the most massive clusters, containing about a million stars. Through a telescope, you’ll see a very tight, concentrated core. The Hubble Space Telescope surveyed 47 Tuc to search for planets orbiting any of its stars and found none. 

Jewel Box (NGC 4755)

The Jewel Box Cluster (NGC 4755)


One of the most beautiful objects in the southern night sky, the Jewel Box, appears as a small fuzzy star near the left “arm” of the Southern Cross. Binoculars will reveal a couple of stars, and a telescope vastly more. A remarkable feature of the Jewel Box is the wide variety of stars’ colors, making it seem like a collection of precious jewels. 


An open cluster is generally a much younger collection of stars compared to globular clusters. These stars have recently formed and are drifting apart from the gas cloud in which they were created. Members of an open cluster can be of different sizes and therefore vary in color and brightness.



Helpful Observing Hints

Tip #1: Use an Astronomy App or Star Chart

Use an Astronomy App or Star Chart

A detailed star map is a great way to learn where to locate celestial objects at any time of the year. It may be an old-fashioned learning tool, but it just works. The most modern and informative tools today are astronomy apps like Celestron’s SkyPortal mobile app. This full-featured planetarium app comes free with the purchase of any Celestron telescope and is available from the Apple App Store or Google Play. SkyPortal instantly provides new telescope owners with a wealth of information, including audio and written descriptions of various objects. It also offers celestial coordinates, a real-time sky map, rise and set times, and physical and orbital parameters.

Tip #2: Seeing Conditions

Seeing Conditions

Steady seeing conditions are critical while observing objects such as planets, the Moon, or double stars. However, deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies are less affected by poor seeing conditions. Avoid nights of bad seeing when our atmosphere is turbulent, and your targets appear like shimmering blobs in your telescope’s eyepiece. Start with low magnification and work your way up if the views remain steady. During a night of good seeing, you will be amazed at how sharp and detailed objects can appear.

Tip #3: Telescope Cooldown

Telescope Cooldown

Cool your telescope down! Make sure you bring your telescope outside about an hour before you plan to observe to cool it to ambient temperature. The telescope must reach thermal equilibrium with the outside air temperature to avoid distorted views. Telescopes with large mirrors and lenses may take longer to cool down properly.

Tip #4: Collimation


Collimate, collimate, collimate! If you own a Newtonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, make sure your telescope’s optics are collimated. It can make a difference when it comes to discerning fine detail. If the optics are slightly out of alignment, you may be cheating yourself out of the sharpest views. Make it a habit to check collimation and adjust once your telescope is cooled down. Most refractor telescopes do not need to be collimated.

Tip #5: Dress in layers

Dress in layers

Wintertime offers terrific views, so the cold temperatures should not deter us from venturing outside to use our binoculars or telescopes. Make sure to dress warmly and in layers in case you need to adjust your clothing as temperatures change as the night goes on. If you have a beanie and scarf, wear them to keep your head, ears, and neck warm. Gloves are helpful but can make things difficult, such as holding on or changing eyepieces. Wear double socks and insulated boots to keep your feet warm, and if you have hand and foot warmers, they can make a world of difference in keeping warm. 

Celestron offers a variety of outdoor electronics, including multipurpose devices that can keep your hands warm and your smartphone charged. You can browse our Elements products at the link below.



If you own a Schmidt-Cassegrain or EdgeHD telescope, use a dew shield or dew heater to protect your telescope’s front corrector plate and stave off the effects of dew. You can browse our Dew Prevention products at the link below.


You can learn about the night skies of the Northern Hemisphere with Celestron Sky Maps! This classic collection of seasonal star charts with a glow-in-the-dark luminous star finder, has been around for years. It continues to be popular with beginning stargazers as well as seasoned amateur astronomers because it provides everything you need to find constellations quickly. 


Final Thoughts

The cold air of winter often provides crystal clear views compared to warmer summertime air. However, these frigid temperatures can also make observing a challenge. If you plan on stargazing on a cold winter night, check the forecast first. Select a night when your area is free from bone-chilling winds and moisture to better your odds of good seeing and more comfortable viewing conditions.

Consider a computerized GoTo telescope or an app-enabled push-to telescope that will help you find celestial objects quickly. And remember, you do not need to use high power all the time.  Sometimes, you can gain a different perspective on an object by using lower magnification, especially on wide-field targets like many of those we mentioned above. Experiment using other eyepieces and see the difference.

Clear skies and happy observing!

Other articles you might be interested in: Ultimate Guide to Observing the Universe