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.
These simple star charts will help beginners recognise the major landmarks of the night sky and follow the motions of the bright planets. There is a pair – one looking east, the other west – for each month.
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 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 the 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 above your horizon measures your latitude. These charts are done for the latitude of Auckland (37-degrees south). From Invercargill, the SCP will appear nearly 10degrees 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 black 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 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.
Because the planets move against the stars over the course of the year, the positions shown for them is only exactly right for date of the ‘mid-month’. For Saturn and Jupiter that move 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
There are some key landmarks to find to begin learning about the summer sky. First look north and find the three bright stars in a line, often called The Pot. These stars make up Orion’s Belt, one of the most distinctive guides in the night sky. Below Orion’s Belt is the bright orange-coloured star Betelgeuse, a massive star that is a supernova in waiting. Directly above the Belt is Rigel, another luminous supergiant star, which is much hotter and tinted blue.
Both these stars are much more massive and luminous than our Sun. Below Orion near the horizon, you will see the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux. Extend the line of the Belt stars to the right (east) to find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and a celestial neighbour at only eight light-years distant. Now extending the Belt line to the left (west) you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus marking the bull’s eye. Continue that line further to the left and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades (Matariki). The unaided eye shows about seven stars but many more are viewable with binoculars.
Following a line up through Orion towards the south brings you to Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky after Sirius. The final bright star to locate is Achernar, marking the end of the meandering constellation of Eridanus (the River).
Once you have located these bright landmarks in the sky, you can explore further by using the charts to identify more of the constellations.
Venus is brilliant in the western sky early in the evening with much dimmer Mars. Jupiter is high in the northeast in the hours before dawn, while Orion sets in the west. Canopus, known as Atutahi to the Māori, dominates our view overhead during the summer. It is the brightest star in the major southern constellation of Carina and lies about 40 times farther from us than Sirius.
The best opportunities to observe Mercury over the summer months are around 11 December in the western sky soon after sunset when it is very bright and then again around 20 January in the east just before dawn.
Brilliant in the west early evening during December near Mars and reaches maximum elongation from the Sun on 13 January. Venus continues to brighten through February, reaching maximum brilliance on 19 February.
During summer Mars is in the western sky after sunset above much brighter Venus and on 2-3 January they are joined by the crescent Moon. By February both planets are low to the western horizon, setting soon after the Sun. By March Mars is very hard to spot after sunset
During December Jupiter is in Virgo, low in the northeast just before dawn and near to the star Spica. By early February it is well placed for viewing due north before sunrise.
Saturn is behind the Sun and cannot be seen in December. By January it is rising just before the Sun and is well up in the northwest pre-dawn sky during February.