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 nights are getting longer and cooler as we pass the autumn equinox. Orion, the dominant constellation of summer, is moving off the celestial stage, chased by the cooler but rich constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius.

By mid-April the sky has moved around and the summer landmark, Orion is now setting in the early evening followed soon after by the ‘Dog Star’, Sirius. Looking north, there are a series of zodiac constellations with familiar names dating back to antiquity.

From west to east you can see Gemini, marked by the two bright stars, Pollux and Castor, low in the northwest. Cancer (the Crab) is quite inconspicuous and hard to pick out if you are competing with city lights or bright moonlight.

On the other hand, Leo, the next constellation moving west to east, is easy to pick out because of its bright, orange star, Regulus. East of Leo lies Virgo, which this year includes planet Jupiter, far outshining Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. Spica is brilliantly white indicating that it’s much hotter than our Sun. Above Spica and Jupiter there is a conspicuous quadrilateral marked by four stars forming a handy signpost; this is the constellation of Corvus (the Crow).

This procession of constellations will cross the northern sky from east to west as the night goes on, followed later by Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius.

Turning to the southern sky, the key landmark to locate is Crux (the Southern Cross), the iconic constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. At this time of year face south and look up high and you should pick it out without difficulty. Just to be sure, check that the two bright stars of Centaurus (commonly called the Pointers) are pointing to the top of the Cross. In mid-autumn around midnight, Crux and Centaurus are at their highest point above the southern horizon.

Following an imaginary line up the sky from the Pointers and on through Crux, you will find the constellations of Carina, Vela and Puppis. There are a number of different patterns you will come to recognise here but most people pick out the distinctive shape of the False Cross. It isn’t a real constellation but its pattern is so obvious that astronomers call it an asterism. It consists of two stars from Carina and two from Vela, all having roughly equal brightness. The brightest star in Carina is the brilliant Canopus. It is the second brightest star, second only to Sirius and the most luminous star within 700 light-years.

Continue the imaginary line past the False Cross, following the centre of the Milky Way and you find the large constellation of Puppis. While this isn’t a household name, it is quite bright and passes overhead in New Zealand.

This trio of important southern constellations – Carina, Vela and Puppis – once made up a single, huge constellation called Argo Navis (the mythical ship of Jason and the Argonauts). Argo Navis was created in the 2nd Century but in the 17th Century it was divided into three smaller more manageable constellations.

At this time of year if you can see the autumn night sky on a moonless night away from city lights, you can easily pick out the disc of our galaxy – The Milky Way – looking like a ghostly cloud stretching across the sky. It is the combined light of some of the estimated 200 billion stars that make up our galaxy, running from the southeastern horizon passing through the Pointers, Crux, Carina, Vela and Puppis and on across the sky passing between Orion and Gemini in the northwest.

MERCURY
The best opportunities to observe Mercury are around 2 April in the western sky soon after sunset and then around 18 May in the east just before dawn.

VENUS
Venus emerges from the Sun’s glare rising just before the Sun by early April. It reaches maximum brightness in the pre-dawn eastern sky on 28 April and continues to rise earlier and be well placed for observing through late May.

MARS
Sets soon after the Sun in the northwest and is very hard to spot in the twilight.

JUPITER
Jupiter is rising in the early evening and reaches opposition (rising at sunset) on 8 April, making it ideally placed for viewing through a telescope around midnight. On 12 April the Moon joins Jupiter and Spica. By May, Jupiter is well placed for viewing from the end of twilight.

SATURN
From March, Saturn is high in the north and is well placed for viewing before dawn. Through April and May, Saturn rises earlier and will provide outstanding views in cool hours before midnight. Over the next few years Saturn will be slowly crossing the dense star fields of the heart of the Milky Way.