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The Stars of the Southern Cross

The Southern Cross is the smallest of all constellations, yet so distinctive in the autumn and winter night sky that it found a place on the Australian flag. 
  • Its position makes it navigationally useful for finding south. 

The town of Southern Cross in WA was so named by gold prospectors who used the constellation to guide them to a strike in 1888.

Finding the Southern Cross

There are many crosses in the skies, so check these keys before deciding you have found the Southern Cross. The two keys to finding the Southern Cross are:

  • The Pointers. These are very bright stars and they make a distinctive shape with the cross.
  • The Fifth Star. Many crosses have a fifth star, and it acts like a "signature." You can tell which cross it is from the location of the fifth star. 
    • The Southern Cross has its fifth star roughly midway between two of its main four stars. 
    • If you are looking from a city this star might be very faint, or even impossible to see, due to the amount of light coming from streetlights. 
    • If this is the case, you will have to rely on the distinctive shape made by the Southern Cross and pointers.

The Southern Cross used to be visible in Greece low on the southern horizon, and it was known to the ancient Greeks and Chaldeans who included it on their star maps. However, the precession (slow wobble) of the earth's axis has steadily carried this part of the sky southwards. 2000 years ago the Southern Cross was just fully visible from Palestine at the right time of year, while today it is just seen from southern Egypt.

  • Special features of the Southern Cross:
  • The brightest star, Acrux, is a double star.
  • Beta Crux, or Mimosa, is also a double of purple-white stars. 
  • One of the reddest stars known, a 10th magnitude carbon star, is beside Mimosa.
  • Gamma Crux is a red giant star.
  • The "Jewel Box" is a fine open cluster of 50 red, white and blue stars about 7600 Light Years away.



  • The two brightest stars in the constellation Centaurus, are popularly known as the Pointers, as they point to the Southern Cross. Alpha Centauri is the brightest, at -0.3 magnitude, but it has two clever advantages to achieve this:
    • it is only 4.3 light years away
    • it is actually a triple star system: two yellow stars like our sun circle each other one light-hour apart (that's about as far as the Sun to Uranus), while a third dwarf star, Proxima Centauri, circles both a couple of light-months away.
  • When we look at Alpha Centauri through the telescope, the separation between the two stars gives us an idea of the size of our Solar System if seen from 4 light years away.


New  Zealand Flag
<< Photo of the Southern Cross viewed as it is represented on the Australian National Flag and on the other Australian flags. New Zealand also uses the Southern Cross on her National Flag but omits the 5th star.

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Digger History:  an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces