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

The evenings are stretching out as we watch the iconic constellations of winter setting earlier and earlier. You will notice that Orion is returning, bringing with it visions of beach holidays and warm nights.

Our 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 the summer night sky, rises in the east. Following Sagittarius along the ecliptic line are the spring constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries. None are as striking as the winter ones setting in the west.

Jupiter is setting early, together with the star Spica. Saturn starts the night high up and will provide memorable views through a telescope. As spring progresses Saturn sets earlier each night, so don’t leave it too late to view Saturn for the year.

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 Aquila, with its bright star Altair, is the small 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. Its notable feature is its large square shape, commonly 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 famous Andromeda Galaxy (M31). In truly dark sites with no Moon, most people can see this galaxy with their naked eye, even though it is some 2.5 million light-years away. Unfortunately, it never rises high in the New Zealand sky and is a challenge to see from Southland.

Looking now to the south, from early September soon after dark you should see Crux (the Southern Cross) on its side in the southwestern sky. It is well marked by the two bright ‘Pointers’ above it. As the night goes on, as with the passing of days, Crux will be found lower and lower in our southern sky. Crux never actually sets in Aotearoa – it just skims the southern horizon when viewed from Cape Reinga but in Invercargill it is noticeably higher. Remember though that when Crux is near its lowest point in the sky it may be hidden behind trees, buildings or hills, depending on your location.

The two bright stars of the southern sky to learn are Canopus and Achernar. To find Achernar it is easiest to imagine a line extending through the long axis of the Southern Cross. Because they are on opposite sides of the southern circumpolar sky, when one is low near the horizon, the other is at its highest point.

Canopus is also easy to spot because it’s the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius. The catch with Canopus is that for a brief period it dips below the southern horizon, at least in the North Island. Apart from that, during early evenings in spring Canopus will be the found low in the southeast. During these times when it’s close to the horizon, the motion of the Earth’s atmosphere can cause Canopus to flash different colours and possibly even appear to jiggle about. While this is a common meteorological phenomenon called ‘scintillation’, it frequently causes Canopus to be reported as a UFO. Scintillation is commonly seen for any bright star close to the horizon but it is more obvious on bright white stars like Canopus.

Mercury

The best opportunities to observe Mercury in the
spring months are around 13 September in the eastern pre-dawn sky, then around 24 November in the west soon after sunset.

Venus

Venus hugs the northeastern horizon at dawn through the spring months and it not observable.

Mars

Mars starts to reappear from behind the Sun but is still too low for viewing in the eastern dawn sky.

Jupiter

Jupiter is setting early in the evening and so is well past its best time for viewing this year. By October and November it is too close to the Sun.

Saturn

Saturn remains well placed for viewing early in the evening during September but by October it has definitely past its best. In November it is setting early in the dusk twilight.