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.
The Moon is the ‘star’ this month, being both ‘super’ and fully eclipsed late evening 26th May. The Eta-Aquarids meteor shower peaks in the early hours of the 6th.
During May our summer constellation Orion sets earlier with each evening. As it sets, the ‘pot’ lies due west with its handle (Orion’s sword) pointing south. To Orion’s right, the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, set in the northwest. Faint orange Mars lies between Orion and the twin stars.
The Moon passes by Mars on the 16th. Later in May, shortly after sunset, Venus might be seen very low, just south of northwest. It almost ‘touches’ much fainter Mercury on the 29th. Above Orion, Canis Major (the big dog) dominates, with brilliant Sirius marking his collar. To Sirius’ right is Procyon of Canis Minor, and further right, roughly north, is Leo (the Lion). A sickle shaped arrangement of stars marks his head! To Leo’s right, approximately northeast high, the twisted quadrilateral of Corvus (the crow) soars above white Spica of Virgo (the maiden). Below her, orange Arcturus of Bootes (the herdsman) twinkles early in the evening.
Further right, south of east, the bold winter constellation Scorpius rises. At its heart is Antares, a red giant star, its name meaning ‘rival of Mars’. Above Scorpius, in dark skies, the many stars of Lupus (the wolf) and Centaurus (the centaur) can be seen, the latter extending over the Southern Cross. Below the Scorpion’s tail, standing on its handle, the ‘teapot’ asterism of Sagittarius is rising. In the same direction bright Jupiter rises about 1:30am in early May progressing to 11:30pm by month’s end. Pale yellow Saturn consistently rises about an hour and a half prior. Just before dawn they’re high in the sky. The Moon slips by 4th/5th May.
MAR 2020 I APR 2021 I MAY 2021
As the Autumn nights get longer and cooler some new landmarks of the night sky come into view. During March, early in the night, Canis Major and Orion (the Hunter) are well placed for viewing and well-worth exploring with binoculars. High in the north there are three bright stars in a line. These stars make up the ‘Belt of Orion’, one of the most distinctive landmarks of the night sky – and commonly called ‘The Pot’.
Extending the line of the Belt stars to the east you will find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Extend the line to the west from the Belt and you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Continue that line further to the west and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades – known to us in Aotearoa as Matariki – but be sure to look in March and April, as Matariki will be hidden by the Sun in May.
Back at Orion’s Belt, identify the bright stars Rigel (white) and Betelgeuse (reddish) which, in early Autumn, 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 and left of 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.
By May, Orion is setting early and is replaced by Crux, Carina and Centaurus in the south, as the major features of our autumn skies.
During March, Canopus is high overhead. Canopus, Atutahi to Māori, was a key guide star used by the Polynesian voyagers and today it is used to guide interplanetary spacecraft.
By May, Canopus will be found in the southwest while Crux (the Southern Cross), rising in the southeast is high in the southern sky. This is a very rich stellar region to explore with binoculars.
Scorpius, also known as Maui’s Fish Hook, is seen rising around midnight in March. By the month of May, it will be rising in the early evening and will remain the dominant feature of our evening sky until Spring.
Visibility of the Naked-Eye Planets
Early in March, Mercury can be seen low in the eastern sky before dawn in company with Jupiter and Saturn. By the end of March, it will be very hard to spot in the dawn glare. It passes behind the Sun around April 20 and in late May will be just visible low in the western sky after sunset. On May 29 it will be very close to Venus which is much brighter.
Venus will be low in the pre-dawn eastern sky during March but will too close to the Sun to spot until late in May when it can be seen low in the west soon after sunset.
Mars will be seen low in the northwest during March, passing close to the red star Aldebaran (the eye of the Bull in Taurus). The crescent Moon passes them over the nights of 19-20 March. By Anzac Day it is setting by 8.30pm.
JUPITER AND SATURN
Our two gas giant planets will be seen low in the pre-dawn eastern sky from early March in Capricornus. By April they will be higher in the east and easy to spot as the Moon passes them on 7 April. The Moon passes them again on the nights 4-5 May. By the end of May our two gas giant planets are high overhead before dawn.