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.
It’s getting colder but these long winter nights should be cherished, as they provide brilliant stargazing and planet viewing opportunities.
The zodiac constellations of winter are Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius and Capricornus. The first three are particularly distinctive and won’t be forgotten
During winter the Sun is low in our day time 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.
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 the bright planets, Saturn and Jupiter, will be together in Sagittarius, significantly changing the look of that constellation.
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 northern most point in our sky — and therefore it is lowest in the sky at noon. In 2020 the solstice falls on 21 June (at 10:44am) 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
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 calendar is regulated by the cycle of the Moon. However, because the lunar calendar gets steadily out of alignment with the seasons, it is realigned each year with the sighting of either Matariki or Puanga (Rigel) in the dawn sky in late 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. Traditionally, it was believed the brighter the stars were, the warmer the coming season would be for growing crops.
Mercury is very low in the west after sunset in mid-June. It can next be seen in the dawn sky very low in the east around 24 July. Mercury will be lost in the Sun’s glare during August.
Venus emerges from the Sun’s glare from mid-June and is very bright low in the north-eastern sky before dawn. It passes the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus on 12 July. Bright Venus will be seen in the pre-dawn north-eastern sky through August.
Mars rises after midnight and is best seen high overhead before dawn throughout the months of June to September. It will be close to the Moon on 13 June.
Jupiter rises around 8pm together with Saturn and near mid-June both are seen overhead by about 2am. The Moon joins this pair of bright planets on 9 June. By mid-August they will be overhead at 10pm, so well placed for telescope viewing.
In June Saturn rises around 8pm, shortly after Jupiter, and these two bright planets can be seen overhead by about 2am. The Moon passes this pair of bright planets on 6 and 7 July. By mid-August they will be overhead at 10pm and very well placed for telescope viewing.