Check our website each month to download free star charts for night sky exploring. These simple star charts will help beginners recognise the major landmarks of the night sky and follow the motions of the bright planets. Click the month to download the pair of star charts – one looking east, the other west.
The star charts show two views of the night sky for each month. One view shows the western sky and the other shows the eastern sky. A small piece of the northern and southern sky is not shown so that we can show you a better scale for the charts.
To match the chart to the western sky, hold the western chart with the ‘WEST’ label aligned with west on your horizon. Be aware that hills, trees and buildings may well block your view of objects nearer the horizon. Also, because of city lights and the absorbing effect of Earth’s atmosphere, objects nearer the horizon will generally appear fainter and redder – an effect we are all familiar with when watching the setting of the Sun or Moon.
Each chart will match the sky at the times given in the table on each page.
Locating the ‘OVERHEAD’ marker for each chart will help with orienting your view of the sky. The other key marker is labelled ‘SCP’ – the South Celestial Pole. The whole sky seems to rotate around this point so objects close to the SCP will never set – they are called ‘circumpolar’. The elevation of the SCP above your horizon measures your latitude. These charts are done for the latitude of Auckland (37° south). From Invercargill, the SCP will appear nearly 10° higher in the south so more of the southern sky will be circumpolar from there. The Southern Cross never sets anywhere in Aotearoa so is perpetually in our skies, even though in the very north of the country it nearly touches the southern horizon.
The thin yellow line stretching across the charts is called the ‘ecliptic’. This marks the annual path of the Sun over the year and it is also the plane of the Solar System. The planets are always found along the ecliptic and are marked on the charts. By checking all the charts you can follow the motions of the planets against the stars over the year.
The size of the stars on the charts indicates the approximate brightness of each star. However, this is not true for the planets. For example, the planets Uranus and Neptune are shown even though they are too faint to see without binoculars or a telescope.
Because the planets move against the stars over the course of the year, the positions shown for them is only exactly right for the ‘mid-month’ date. For Saturn and Jupiter that move only slowly, their positions are quite good. However, Mercury, Venus and Mars move quite quickly relative to the stars, so their positions on the charts can be somewhat different. The planet positions shown are correct for the mid-month time for each month respectively. For example, on the ‘JANUARY – WEST’ chart, the positions of the planets are calculated for mid-January at 10pm.
The size of the stars on the charts indicates the approximated brightness of each star. However, this is not true for the planets. For example, the planets Uranus and Neptune are shown even though they are too faint to see without binoculars or a telescope.
Only the most prominent constellations are shown to avoid unnecessary clutter.
The iconic winter constellations will start to set earlier and earlier. Get your last bit of long stargazing nights in and start preparing for Orion to return in the night skies, bringing with it the vision of balmy summer nights.
Our spring sky features the setting of the important winter constellations of Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. Scorpius will be seen plunging into the western horizon and as it does so Orion, the major constellation of the summer night sky, rises in the east. Following Sagittarius along the ecliptic line are the spring constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries. None are as striking as the winter ones setting in the west.
Jupiter and Saturn start the night high up and will provide memorable views through a telescope. As spring progresses they set earlier each night so don’t leave it too late to view them for the year.
Looking due north, in early September you will see
two bright stars. Vega is low down (and harder to spot
in the south of the country) but Altair is higher up and easy to identify because it is flanked by two fainter
stars. To the east, Aquila with its bright star Altair,
is the small but quite distinctive constellation of Delphinus (the Dolphin).
Around the end of November, as soon as the sky is dark, you will easily identify the constellation of Pegasus. Its notable feature is its large square shape, commonly called the ‘Great Square of Pegasus’. The constellation Andromeda runs off the lower right-hand corner of the Great Square and if you trace that line with binoculars you may pick out the famous Andromeda Galaxy (M31). In truly dark sites with no Moon, most people can see this galaxy with their naked eye, even though it is some 2.5 million light-years away. Unfortunately, it never rises high in the New Zealand sky and it’s a challenge to see from Southland.
Looking now to the south, from early September soon after dark you should see Crux (the Southern Cross) on its side in the south-western sky. It is well marked by the two bright ‘Pointers’ above it. As the night goes on, as with the passing of days, Crux will be found lower and lower in our southern sky. Crux never actually sets in Aotearoa — it just skims the southern horizon when viewed from Cape Reinga but in Invercargill it is noticeably higher. Remember though that when Crux is near its lowest point in the sky, it may be hidden behind trees, buildings or hills, depending on your location.
The two bright stars of the southern sky to learn are Canopus and Achernar. To find Achernar it is easiest to imagine a line extending through the long axis of the Southern Cross. Because they are on opposite sides of the southern circumpolar sky, when one is low near the horizon, the other is at its highest point.
As the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, Canopus is also easy to spot. The catch with Canopus is that for a brief period it dips below the southern horizon, at least in the North Island. Apart from that, during early evenings in spring, Canopus will be found low in the south-east. During these times when it’s close to the horizon, the motion of Earth’s atmosphere can cause Canopus to flash different colours and possibly even appear to jiggle about. While this is a common meteorological phenomenon called ‘scintillation’, it frequently causes Canopus to be reported as a UFO. Scintillation is commonly seen for any bright star close to the horizon but it is more obvious on bright, white stars like Canopus.
The best chance to view Mercury this year will be from 20 September to 15 October when Mercury will be low in the west shortly after sunset. On 22 September it passes the star Spica.
Venus is bright and can be spotted low in the north-eastern sky just before dawn during September.
It gets harder to see by November.
In mid-September Mars is rising around 11pm and is high overhead by 3am. By November it is nearly overhead in Pisces at 11pm.
In September Jupiter is high overhead in the early evening in Sagittarius, together with Saturn, which
is fainter. By November the two planets will be setting around midnight.
Saturn is high overhead in the early evening, together with Jupiter (the brighter). The two bright planets set about two hours earlier each month, so by November they will be setting around midnight.