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.
This year you will be treated to our best planet viewing opportunities in 20 years.
The zodiac constellations of winter are Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius and Capricornus. The first three are particularly distinctive and once identified, they
won’t be forgotten.
During winter, the Sun is low in the daytime sky so any planets opposite the Sun will be nearly overhead during the middle of the night, providing the best chance to see them well in a telescope. The yellow line on the star charts is called the Ecliptic – the plane of our Solar System projected on the sky – and along this line the Sun and planets are always found. In 2018 Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be in this favoured position and here in New Zealand you can enjoy the box-seat view.
Looking up and scanning west to east you can pick out Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Between Jupiter and Saturn identify the iconic constellation, Scorpius, with its distinctive bright red star, Antares.
Saturn is in Sagittarius, changing the look of that constellation quite a lot. The best time to view Saturn through a telescope will be from June through to September.
Mars is also easily seen, initially in Capricornus. Over the winter months, Mars will move noticeably against the stars and get much brighter, rivalling Jupiter. Mars is closest to Earth (and therefore best seen through a telescope) on 31 July, at which point it will be closer than any time since 2003.
In the northern sky during early winter you will see the fourth brightest star of the night sky, the orange star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. By late winter Arcturus has drifted westward to be replaced by the two bright stars, Vega in Lyra and Altair in Aquila, as the most prominent starry landmarks. In the far south of the country, these northern stars don’t rise very high but are very familiar to sky watchers in the north.
Looking south in early winter, the spectacular constellations of Crux, Centaurus and Carina are high up and the further south you are, the better the view. These regions are richly packed with stars and star clusters that are well worth exploring with binoculars. By early August the Scorpius-Sagittarius region is the one to explore during the early evening. This is the brightest and densest part of the Milky Way and is seen best from the latitude of Aotearoa. When not competing with the light pollution of towns and cities (or the Moon) the light from billions and billions of stars combine to make ‘star clouds’ that can even be seen with the naked eye.
In 2018 the winter solstice falls on 21 June (at 11.07pm NZST) making it the shortest day of the year. After that time the Sun begins moving south again, extending our days and shortening the nights.
Matariki and the Maori New Year
The Māori named the beautiful cluster of stars in Taurus, Matariki. It is known to Europeans as the Pleiades or the ’Seven Sisters’ but many other cultures have names for it as well. Rather less poetically, astronomers usually just call it M45. About seven stars are usually seen with the naked eye but these are only the brightest, with many fainter cluster members visible with binoculars.
The Māori based their calendar on the cycle of the Moon. However, as the lunar calendar gets steadily out of alignment with the seasons, it is realigned each year with the sighting of Matariki in the dawn sky from around mid-June. This observation restarts the Māori calendar with the next new Moon.
Beyond the practical need to maintain a calendar, Matariki is also an important Māori celebratory period, lasting about a month.
Mercury can be seen around mid-July low in the northeast, below Venus. It reaches its maximum eastern elongation on 12 July. On 15 July Mercury and Venus are joined by the thin crescent Moon.
Venus is a very prominent object in the north-western sky after sunset over the winter months and reaches its maximum elongation from the Sun on 18 August. On 10 July it will be close to Regulus, the brightest star in Leo and the Moon joins them on 16 July.
Mars is approaching its closest pass to Earth since 2003, providing us with a rare close view of the red planet. In early June Mars rises at about 9.30pm, a little earlier each night until by the end of June it’s rising at 7.30pm. At this time it is well placed for telescope viewing by 11pm. Mars continues to get bigger and brighter through July. Jupiter and Saturn are also very well placed near by.
Mars is actually closest to Earth at 7.51pm on 31 July, with a distance of 57.59 million km and an apparent planetary disc diameter of 24.3 arc-seconds. That is only 3% further from us than Mars was in 2003 – and that was the closest the two planets had been in the last 60,000 years! This is an exceptional opportunity to see Mars up close and New Zealand will be one of the best places in the world to see it.
Jupiter is very favourably placed for telescope viewing over the winter months. It will be high in the sky and very bright from early in the evening. It passed opposition in early May.
In June, Saturn is well placed for viewing from about 11pm in Sagittarius. It passes nearly overhead, and with its rings tilted towards us, this offers one of the most memorable views in the night sky. Saturn continues to provide brilliant views through a telescope, along with Mars and Jupiter. They are the three best planets perfectly placed to be seen from New Zealand.