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

 

SKY GUIDE SUMMER

DEC 2020  I  JAN 2021  I  FEB 2021

The warmer Summer nights are an ideal time to start learning key landmarks of the night sky. First look north and find the three bright stars in a line, often called ‘The Pot’. These stars make up the ‘Belt of Orion’, one of the most distinctive guides of the night sky.

Extend the line of the Belt stars to the right (east) and you will find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Extending the line to the left (west) from the Belt and you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Continuing that line further to the left and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades – known to us in Aotearoa as Matariki.

Back at Orion’s Belt, identify the bright stars Rigel (white) and Betelgeuse (reddish) which 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 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.

Roughly overhead around 10pm there are two bright stars. The brightest of them is Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky. Canopus, Atutahi to Māori, was a key guide star used by the Polynesian voyagers – while today it is used to guide interplanetary spacecraft.

The fainter of the two, lying west of Canopus, is Achernar which marks the end of the meandering constellation of Eridanus (the River). Extending a line from Canopus passed Achernar brings you to Fomalhaut, the brightest star in the constellation Pisces Austrinus (Southern Fish).

In the early evening, the brightest object in the northwest is the planet Mars, fading now as we leave it behind. If you get up before dawn near mid-December, Orion is setting in the west while in the east, the dazzling bright object is Venus.

SIDEBAR: Spot the Magellanic Clouds From the Southern Hemisphere, on dark nights, you can see two galaxies with your naked eye. They are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (marked as LMC and SMC respectively on the star charts). To Māori they were Pātari-rangi or Ngā Pātari.

The distance to the LMC is about 160,000 light-years while the SMC is about 200,000 light-years away. These are dwarf galaxies, close neighbours to our much larger Milky Way Galaxy. They reach their highest point due south around early January. Each can be explored with binoculars or a telescope showing a myriad of star clusters and gaseous nebulae.  

Visibility of the Naked-Eye Planets

MERCURY

Mercury stays close to the Sun over the Summer months, setting in the twilight soon after sunset a little west of southwest in January. By late February it will be low in the eastern sky between the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

VENUS

Venus will be low in the pre-dawn eastern sky during December but will too close to the Sun to spot during January and February

MARS

Although now well past opposition, Mars remains a prominent object in northern sky early in the evening through December. By early February it can be spotted in the northwest, setting about midnight.

JUPITER AND SATURN

This is a very special time for the two giant planets as they are very close together in our early evening sky during December. In fact, on 22 December they will closer together in the sky than at any time since 1623! However, our view of these two planets will be brief because they will be setting in the west soon after the Sun. The views will be from any place with a clear western horizon. Binoculars should allow you to see the brighter moons of these planets as well. Watch from 15 December for the next two weeks to fully appreciate this rare planetary conjunction. The pair are then swallowed up by the Sun’s glare, but return to our pre-dawn eastern sky, somewhat separated, from late February.