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.
Low in the west dazzling Venus and Spica of Virgo lie less than 2 degrees apart on the 5th. Venus rises higher as the nights pass, and as the sky darkens, little Mercury should be visible below. A crescent Moon slips by the pair on the 9th and 10th.
Corvus (the crow) sets to the left of the planets while partway up the western sky the stars of Libra (the scales of justice) nestle below the Scorpion’s head. Early in September about 8pm, the Scorpion’s tail, Corona Australis (the southern crown), and the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius (the archer), lie directly overhead. They drift westwards as the nights pass.
Early in the month, Arcturus of Bootes (the herdsman) twinkles as it sets west-northwest. To its right, beyond the faint constellations Corona Borealis and Hercules, two bright stars lie low across the northern meridian. These are Vega of Lyra (the lyre) and Deneb of Cygnus (the swan). Together they form the baseline of the ‘Summer Triangle’. At the triangle’s apex, midway up the sky, is Altair of Aquila (the eagle).
Just below Altair lies faint little Sagitta (the arrow). To its right is Delphinus (the dolphin) and then Equuleus (the little horse), making three little constellations in a row.
Meanwhile mighty Pegasus (the winged horse) emerges from the northeastern horizon.
Jupiter and Saturn are very prominent high above and are perfectly placed for evening telescope viewing. The Moon sweeps by on the 17th and 18th.
Pisces (the fishes) and Cetus (the whale) rise either side of east. Southeast high, three equidistant stars, Fomalhaut, Al Nair, and Peacock, form a long line angling up the sky. Lower in the southeast is Achernar, while Canopus ‘may’ be seen twinkling on the southern horizon. In the southwest Crux is on its side with the Southern Pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri above.
SEPTEMBER 2021 I OCTOBER 2021 I NOVEMBER 2021
The spring night sky shows the clear transition from winter into summer, as the major winter constellations slip below the western horizon and Orion, the famous summer constellation rises in the east.
Our spring sky features the setting of the important winter constellations of Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. Scorpius will be seen plunging 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.
The prominent planets in the evenings are Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. Venus is impossible to miss, appearing in the west at twilight, and setting some three hours later. In September the gas giants appear high in the sky, east of northeast, at dusk. Both planets lie in the faint constellation Capricornus, substantially changing its look. As spring progresses, they drift westward and in November are lined up above Venus. Also putting in an appearance is nimble little Mercury, quite easily identified in September, low in the darkening western sky.
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 of 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 it’s 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 south-western 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.
As the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, Canopus is also easy to spot. 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 found low in the south-east. During these times when it’s close to the horizon, the motion of 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 is well placed for viewing in the western sky after sunset over the first few weeks of September. Brighter than any surrounding stars it should be easily identified below and slightly to the left of Venus. From about 20 September it accompanies Spica in close conjunction as together they sink sharply towards the horizon over the following days. Mercury is lost to the Sun’s glare early in October. It returns to the dawn twilight from late October for a few weeks, very low in the east, but very hard to see.
Brilliant Venus dominates the western sky throughout the entire season. In early spring the ecliptic line rises steeply away from the horizon in the southern hemisphere’s early evenings, and this combined with the planet’s position relative to Earth, keeps it high above the Sun from our perspective. For this reason, we get to enjoy its brilliance against a dark sky for up to three hours each evening. Venus forms a spectacular conjunction with the Moon on 08 November.
Mars is all but lost to the setting Sun’s glare in early September. It passes solar conjunction on 08 October and returns to the dawn twilight in late November. Very low, south of east, Mars is difficult to see.
Early in the season Jupiter, along with Saturn, which is dimmer, begin the evenings prominent in the eastern sky. Drifting westward they are high overhead in the early evenings in October. In November they’re firmly in the west and lining up above dazzling Venus. Following a close Moon/Venus conjunction on 08 November the Moon delights as it aligns with and passes by Saturn and Jupiter.
Saturn is pale yellow in colour and much fainter than glowing Jupiter. However, it is easily identified, being much brighter than the surrounding stars of Capricornus. In early spring both planets are beautifully placed for telescope viewing but continue to be worth chasing right through until early summer.