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.
Balmy summer nights and holidays away from the city means it’s the perfect time for exploring the beautiful Southern Hemisphere skies.
There are some key landmarks to find to begin learning about the summer sky. First look north and find the three bright stars in a line, often called The Pot. These stars make up Orion’s Belt, one of the most distinctive guides in the night sky.
Below Orion’s Belt is the bright orange-coloured star Betelgeuse, a massive star that is a supernova in waiting. Directly above the Belt is Rigel, another luminous supergiant star, which is much hotter and tinted blue. Both these stars are much more massive and luminous than our Sun. Below Orion near the horizon you will see the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux.
Extend the line of the Belt stars to the right (east) to find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and a celestial neighbour at only eight light-years distant. Now extending the Belt line to the left (west) you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus marking the bull’s eye. Continue that line further to the left and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades (Matariki). The unaided eye shows about seven stars but many more are seen
Following a line up through Orion towards the south brings you to Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky after Sirius. Canopus, known as Atutahi to Māori, dominates our view overhead during the summer. It is the brightest star in the major southern constellation of Carina and lies about 40 times further from us than Sirius. The final bright star to locate is Achernar, marking the end of the meandering constellation of Eridanus (the River).
Once you have located these bright landmarks in the sky, you can explore further by using the charts to identify more of the constellations. Watch for Venus low in the western sky early in the evening. Jupiter and Saturn rise just before dawn in the northeast, while Orion sets in the west.
Spot the Magellanic Clouds
Two special features of our Southern Hemisphere night sky are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (marked as LMC and SMC respectively on the star charts) and are named after the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), who first described them. These two dwarf galaxies are the two closest galaxies to our much larger Milky Way Galaxy. For early evening viewing away from city lights on a moonless night, they are easily seen with the naked eye and reach their highest point due south around early January. They can be seen better using binoculars. The distance to the LMC is about 160,000 light-years, while that of the SMC is about 210,000 light-years.
This is the most difficult planet to spot because it orbits closest to the Sun. This means, as viewed from Earth, Mercury never gets far from the Sun in the sky. It sets and rises near the Sun and is only briefly visible in the night sky. During this period Mercury remains too close to the Sun to view.
Venus is very bright low in the western sky after sunset. Being the second planet from the Sun, Venus strays further from the Sun than Mercury in early evening and pre-dawn skies. It is also the brightest
of the planets.
Mars remains relatively close to the Sun during these three months. It is visible in the predawn sky low in the east. It will be only briefly visible during December but rises progressively earlier over the following months.
During December, Jupiter is too close to the Sun to view. However, its separation from the Sun in the eastern sky increases during January and February. It will be placed between Mars (higher) and Saturn (lower) in the predawn sky.
Saturn is too close to the Sun to see in December and January but is briefly visible in the predawn sky by February, a little below brighter Jupiter. Our two gas giant planets remain in close company all this year in the constellation of Sagittarius.