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.
DEC 2020 I JAN 2021 I FEB 2021
The warmer Summer nights are an ideal time to start learning key landmarks of the night sky. First look north and find the three bright stars in a line, often called ‘The Pot’. These stars make up the ‘Belt of Orion’, one of the most distinctive guides of the night sky.
Extend the line of the Belt stars to the right (east) and you will find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Extending the line to the left (west) from the Belt and you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Continuing that line further to the left and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades – known to us in Aotearoa as Matariki.
Back at Orion’s Belt, identify the bright stars Rigel (white) and Betelgeuse (reddish) which are above and below the belt, respectively. Those two bright stars, together with two slightly fainter ones enclose most of Orion with the belt being in the middle. A small line of fainter stars above the belt marks Orion’s sword. One of these ‘stars’ is the magnificent Orion Nebula (M42), the closest massive star forming region to us. It is a stunning sight even in backyard telescopes.
Roughly overhead around 10pm there are two bright stars. The brightest of them is Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky. Canopus, Atutahi to Māori, was a key guide star used by the Polynesian voyagers – while today it is used to guide interplanetary spacecraft.
The fainter of the two, lying west of Canopus, is Achernar which marks the end of the meandering constellation of Eridanus (the River). Extending a line from Canopus passed Achernar brings you to Fomalhaut, the brightest star in the constellation Pisces Austrinus (Southern Fish).
In the early evening, the brightest object in the northwest is the planet Mars, fading now as we leave it behind. If you get up before dawn near mid-December, Orion is setting in the west while in the east, the dazzling bright object is Venus.
SIDEBAR: Spot the Magellanic Clouds From the Southern Hemisphere, on dark nights, you can see two galaxies with your naked eye. They are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (marked as LMC and SMC respectively on the star charts). To Māori they were Pātari-rangi or Ngā Pātari.
The distance to the LMC is about 160,000 light-years while the SMC is about 200,000 light-years away. These are dwarf galaxies, close neighbours to our much larger Milky Way Galaxy. They reach their highest point due south around early January. Each can be explored with binoculars or a telescope showing a myriad of star clusters and gaseous nebulae.
Visibility of the Naked-Eye Planets
Mercury stays close to the Sun over the Summer months, setting in the twilight soon after sunset a little west of southwest in January. By late February it will be low in the eastern sky between the planets Jupiter and Saturn.
Venus will be low in the pre-dawn eastern sky during December but will too close to the Sun to spot during January and February
Although now well past opposition, Mars remains a prominent object in northern sky early in the evening through December. By early February it can be spotted in the northwest, setting about midnight.
JUPITER AND SATURN
This is a very special time for the two giant planets as they are very close together in our early evening sky during December. In fact, on 22 December they will closer together in the sky than at any time since 1623! However, our view of these two planets will be brief because they will be setting in the west soon after the Sun. The views will be from any place with a clear western horizon. Binoculars should allow you to see the brighter moons of these planets as well. Watch from 15 December for the next two weeks to fully appreciate this rare planetary conjunction. The pair are then swallowed up by the Sun’s glare, but return to our pre-dawn eastern sky, somewhat separated, from late February.