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.
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
The spring sky features the setting of the important winter constellations of Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. Scorpius will be seen plunging head first into the western horizon and as it does so, Orion, the major constellation of our summer night sky, is rising in the east. Following Sagittarius along the yellow ecliptic line are the spring constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries. None are as striking as the winter ones setting in the west.
Early in September the bright planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, are prominent overhead, while Jupiter is setting early. Earth is leaving Mars behind so you see the movement of Mars almost night-to-night in Capricornus.
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 of Altair is the compact 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, often 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 Andromeda Galaxy (M31).
Looking now to the south, from early September, soon after dark, you will see Crux (the Southern Cross) on its side in the south-western sky. It is well marked by the two bright ‘Pointers’ above it. Crux never actually sets in Aotearoa – it just skims the southern horizon when viewed from Cape Reinga but in Invercargill, it is noticeably higher.
The two bright stars of the southern sky to learn are Canopus and Achernar. To find Achernar it is easiest just to extend a line through the long axis of the Southern Cross. Because they are on opposite sides of the southern circumpolar sky, when one is low on the horizon, the other is at its highest point.
Canopus is also easy to see because it’s the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius. During early evenings in spring Canopus will be found low in the south-east. For a brief period, Canopus dips below the southern horizon, at least in the North Island. 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 jump about.
As the twilight fades on the nights 15-18 October, you can see Venus and Mercury very low in the west following the Sun, with Jupiter above them and Saturn, the Moon and Mars nearly overhead. It is rare to be able to see all six objects together in a single view.
Mercury passes behind the Sun on 21 September but gradually reappears in the early evening western sky, briefly visible soon after sunset late in October. On 29 October Mercury is next to Jupiter, low in the west and moving up the sky noticeably each night. If you have a clear view of the western horizon then very low down you will see the slim crescent Moon, with Jupiter, Mercury and the star Antares and Saturn and Mars higher above them.
In September, Venus is the brightest object low in the western sky after sunset, slowly getting closer to the Sun and therefore harder to spot. It passes the Sun on 27 October and reappears low in the eastern sky just before sunrise, in company with the star Spica in Virgo.
We overtook Mars on 27 July and are now leaving it behind. It is still high in our sky and while now shrinking in size as it recedes in the distance, it remains well placed and is well worth viewing through a telescope during September. Don’t leave it too long because by the end of November Mars will be only 38% of the apparent size it reached at opposition in July.
Jupiter is now low in the western sky soon after sunset and is no longer worth viewing through a telescope. Catch it again from March 2019.
Saturn is well placed for early evening viewing and always a spectacular sight during September and October. It will be too low in the western sky to give views during November.