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.
The days are cooling down and the nights are getting longer. The two gas giants are bright in the pre-dawn sky so set the alarm and grab your binoculars.
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. Gemini is marked by the two bright stars, Pollux and Castor. Cancer is harder to pick out if you are competing with city lights or bright moonlight. On the other hand, Leo is easy to spot because of its bright, orange star Regulus.
East of Leo is Virgo, marked by its bright star, Spica. Spica is brilliantly white; meaning it’s very hot, much hotter than our Sun. Just above Spica there is a conspicuous quadrilateral marked by four stars – the constellation of Corvus (the Crow). Later in the night, the procession of zodiac constellations continues with Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. In the southern sky, the key landmark to locate is Crux (the Southern Cross), the iconic constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. At this time of year, face south and 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.
Spanning the sky between the Southern Cross and the bright star Canopus you will find the bright constellations of Carina, Vela and Puppis. Here there are a number of different patterns you will come to recognise. The distinctive shape of the ‘False Cross’ isn’t a constellation but astronomers call it an ‘asterism’ (a prominent pattern) made by two stars from Carina and two from Vela. The brightest star in Carina is the brilliant Canopus, the most luminous star within 700 light years of Earth.
Continuing our imaginary line past the False Cross, essentially following the centre of the Milky Way, we find the large constellation of Puppis. It is quite bright and passes overhead in Aotearoa.
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).
On a dark moonless night away from city lights you should pick out the disk of the Milky Way Galaxy. It looks like a ghostly cloud but is really the combined light of some 200 billion stars. It trails from the south-eastern horizon passing through the Pointers, Crux, Carina, Vela and Puppis and on across the sky passing between Orion and Gemini in the northwest.
Scorpius is seen rising in the east around midnight in March and 7.30pm by mid-May. As Scorpius rises, Orion sets in the west. The bright planet Jupiter rises about an hour after Scorpius and Saturn rises about an hour after that. Both these bright planets are high overhead before dawn in April and May.
Mercury remains close to the Sun in the western sky, too close to be seen. It passes close to the Sun on 15 March and moves to the morning sky. By mid-April Mercury is seen low in the east, together with Venus, making it easier to identify. By the end of April, Mercury is moving back towards the Sun soon being lost in the Sun’s glare.
During March Venus is seen low in the east before sunrise. Early in May the thin crescent Moon will pass Venus and Mercury low in the east in the early dawn.
Mars can be spotted lurking low in the northwest and sets a few hours after the Sun.
Early in March Jupiter rises about 1am and is bright in the pre-dawn sky. In early April it is high overhead with Saturn seen against the back drop of the brightest part of the Milky Way – Sagittarius. This lovely view of our Solar System’s two giant planets continues through May.
Early in March Saturn is in the east between Jupiter and Venus, rising at about 3am and bright in the
pre-dawn sky. By the middle of May Saturn and Jupiter are both overhead around 3am, making a fine sight with the ‘star clouds’ of the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.