Star Charts

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.

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How to use the star charts

Although it’s cold the stars of the winter skies over Aotearoa seem to sparkle with particular brilliance. These long nights are cherished by astronomers and the further south you are, the more likely you will see an aurora.

The zodiac constellations of winter are Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius and Capricornus. The first three are particularly distinctive and won’t be forgotten once identified.

During winter the Sun is low in our daytime sky. This means that planets opposite the Sun in our night sky will be high above the horizon by the middle of the night. Therefore, the winter months provide the best opportunities to view the planets through a telescope. The solid yellow line marked on the star charts is called the ‘Ecliptic’, the plane of our Solar System along which the Sun and the planets are found. This year we will have both Saturn and Jupiter in this favoured position during the early evening.

You will also notice that the Ecliptic crosses the plane of the Milky Way near the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. During mid-winter the Ecliptic passes nearly overhead around midnight so any planets near these constellations are ideally placed for viewing through a telescope. This year Saturn will be slowly moving past Scorpius towards Sagittarius, significantly changing the look of these constellations.

In the northern sky during early winter, the orange star Arcturus is the main feature. It is the fourth brightest star in the night sky and the brightest in the constellation Bootes. By late winter Arcturus is setting earlier and has been replaced by the two bright stars, Vega in Lyra and Altair in Aquila as the most prominent northern starry landmarks. In the far south of the country these northern stars don’t rise very high but are familiar to those in the north.

Looking south in early winter, the spectacular constellations of Crux, Centaurus and Carina are high up and the further south you are the better the view. These regions are richly packed with stars and many star clusters that are well worth exploring with binoculars. By early August the Scorpius-Sagittarius region is the one to explore during the early evening. This is the brightest and densest part of the Milky Way and it is seen best from the latitude of Aotearoa. When not competing with the light pollution of towns and cities (or the Moon), the light from billions and billions of stars combine to make ‘star clouds’ that can be seen with the naked eye. When looking at Sagittarius, you are looking straight towards the heart of our galaxy with its super-massive black hole at the centre.

The Southern Hemisphere winter solstice marks the time when the Sun reaches its northernmost point in our sky – and therefore it is lowest in the sky at noon. In 2017 the solstice falls on June 21 (at 4:24pm) and signals the shortest day of the year. After that date the Sun begins moving south again, extending our daylight and shortening the nights.

Matariki and the Māori New Year

The Māori named the beautiful cluster of stars in Taurus, Matariki. It is known to Europeans as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters but many other cultures have their own names for it as well. Rather less poetically, astronomers usually call it M45. About seven stars can be seen with the naked eye but many more can be seen with binoculars.

The Māori based their calendar on the cycle of the Moon. However, as the lunar calendar gets steadily out of alignment with the seasons, it is realigned each year with the sighting of Matariki in the dawn sky around mid-June. This sighting restarts the lunar calendar with the next new Moon.

Beyond the practical need to maintain a calendar, Matariki is also a celebratory period that is very important in Māori culture.

Mercury
The best opportunity to observe Mercury during winter is around 30 July in the western sky soon after sunset.

Venus
Venus is brilliant in the pre-dawn eastern sky and well placed for viewing with a telescope during June. On June 21 it is close to the thin crescent Moon. During July and August, Venus is low in the northeastern sky before dawn.

Mars
Mars is passing behind the Sun and cannot be seen.

Jupiter
Still within Virgo, Jupiter dominates the northern winter night sky after sunset and still provides good viewing through a telescope.

Saturn
Saturn reaches opposition on 15 June, which is the ideal time to view it because it is closest to Earth for the year.  Also, at our latitude in the Southern Hemisphere, Saturn passes high overhead and will provide us with stunning views through a telescope over the winter.