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.
Because the planets move against the stars over the course of the year, the positions shown for them is only exactly right for date of the ‘mid-month’. For Saturn and Jupiter that move 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
A prelude to one of the best seasons we have had in decades for viewing the bright planets.
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. Cancer is much less conspicuous and can be hard to pick out if competing with city lights or bright moonlight.
Leo, the next constellation moving eastwards (to your left) is easy to pick out because of its bright, orange star Regulus. East of Leo is Virgo, marked by its bright star, Spica. Above Spica there is a conspicuous quadrilateral marked by four stars forming a handy signpost – the constellation of Corvus (the Crow). The procession of zodiac constellations will cross the sky from east to west as the night goes on, followed later by Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius.
Turning to face the south, the key landmark to locate is Crux (the Southern Cross), the iconic constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. At this time of year, face south, 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.
Follow an imaginary line up the sky from the Pointers, on through Crux you will find the bright Southern Hemisphere constellations of Carina, Vela and Puppis. There are some different patterns you will come to recognise here but most people notice the distinctive shape of the ’False Cross’. This isn’t a constellation but it is so obvious that astronomers call it an asterism.
The brightest star in Carina is the brilliant Canopus.
Continue the imaginary line past the False Cross, essentially following the centre of the Milky Way, you will 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 (being the mythical ship of Jason and the Argonauts) which was created in the 2nd Century before being divided into more manageable constellations in the 17th Century.
Mercury stays close to the Sun during the autumn so it’s hard to spot. Your best opportunity to spot our most elusive planet will be around April 25 very low in the eastern sky in the dawn twilight. Even so, it could be obscured by buildings, trees or hills.
Venus sets in the southwest soon after the Sun in the evening twilight during March and April. By late in May it is easier to spot, although still a challenge, setting with Orion and Gemini shortly after 7pm.
Mars is rising earlier before the Sun and is now easy to spot in the pre-dawn sky from March. It is high overhead near the brightest part of the Milky Way, accompanied by Saturn and Jupiter and the bright star Antares. There will be some nice opportunities there for astrophotography. By April, Mars (with Saturn) will be high overhead before sunrise and on 8 April they will be joined by the Moon.
From early March Jupiter is rising before midnight and is high overhead before dawn. By April, it is high in the sky around midnight and a month later it will be well placed for telescopic viewing by 9pm. It reaches opposition on 9 May, which is the ideal time to view it for 2018.
Saturn is well placed in the pre-dawn sky in company with Mars and Jupiter, and on March 11 they are joined by the Moon. By May, Saturn is rising at about 8pm and is well seen by midnight through a telescope as it approaches opposition to the Sun.