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.

web_general_800x400_star-charts

How to use the star charts

AUTUMN

The days are cooling down and the nights are getting longer. The two gas giants are bright in the pre-dawn sky so set the alarm and grab your binoculars.

By mid-April the sky has moved around and the summer landmark, Orion, is now setting in the early evening followed soon after by the ‘Dog Star’, Sirius. Looking north, there are a series of zodiac constellations with familiar names dating back to antiquity. Gemini is marked by the two bright stars, Pollux and Castor. Cancer is harder to pick out if you are competing with city lights or bright moonlight.  On the other hand, Leo is easy to spot because of its bright, orange star Regulus.

East of Leo is Virgo, marked by its bright star, Spica. Spica is brilliantly white; meaning it’s very hot, much hotter than our Sun. Just above Spica there is a conspicuous quadrilateral marked by four stars – the constellation of Corvus (the Crow). Later in the night, the procession of zodiac constellations continues with Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. In the southern sky, the key landmark to locate is Crux (the Southern Cross), the iconic constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. At this time of year, face south and look up high and you should pick it out without difficulty. Just to be sure check that the two bright stars of Centaurus (commonly called ‘the Pointers’) are pointing to the top of the Cross.

Spanning the sky between the Southern Cross and the bright star Canopus you will find the bright constellations of Carina, Vela and Puppis. Here there are a number of different patterns you will come to recognise. The distinctive shape of the ‘False Cross’  isn’t a constellation but astronomers call it an ‘asterism’ (a prominent pattern) made by two stars from Carina and two from Vela. The brightest star in Carina is the brilliant Canopus, the most luminous star within 700 light years of Earth.

Continuing our imaginary line past the False Cross, essentially following the centre of the Milky Way, we find the large constellation of Puppis. It is quite bright and passes overhead in Aotearoa.

This trio of important southern constellations – Carina, Vela and Puppis – once made up a single, huge constellation called Argo Navis (being the mythical ship of Jason and the Argonauts).

On a dark moonless night away from city lights you should pick out the disk of the Milky Way Galaxy. It looks like a ghostly cloud but is really the combined light of some 200 billion stars. It trails from the south-eastern horizon passing through the Pointers, Crux, Carina, Vela and Puppis and on across the sky passing between Orion and Gemini in the northwest.

Scorpius is seen rising in the east around midnight in March and 7.30pm by mid-May. As Scorpius rises, Orion sets in the west. The bright planet Jupiter rises about an hour after Scorpius and Saturn rises about an hour after that. Both these bright planets are high overhead before dawn in April and May.

 

Mercury

Mercury remains close to the Sun in the western sky, too close to be seen. It passes close to the Sun on 15 March and moves to the morning sky. By mid-April Mercury is seen low in the east, together with Venus, making it easier to identify. By the end of April, Mercury is moving back towards the Sun soon being lost in the Sun’s glare.

Venus

During March Venus is seen low in the east before sunrise. Early in May the thin crescent Moon will pass Venus and Mercury low in the east in the early dawn.

Mars

Mars can be spotted lurking low in the northwest and sets a few hours after the Sun.

Jupiter

Early in March Jupiter rises about 1am and is bright in the pre-dawn sky. In early April it is high overhead with Saturn seen against the back drop of the brightest part of the Milky Way – Sagittarius. This lovely view of our Solar System’s two giant planets continues through May.

Saturn

Early in March Saturn is in the east between Jupiter and Venus, rising at about 3am and bright in the
pre-dawn sky. By the middle of May Saturn and Jupiter are both overhead around 3am, making a fine sight with the ‘star clouds’ of the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.