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 warmer evenings are on their way as iconic winter constellations begin to set and the summer constellation Orion will start to reappear.
Our spring sky features the setting of the important winter constellations of Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. Scorpius is seen plunging head first into the western horizon and as it does so, Orion, the major constellation of our summer night sky is rising in the east. Following Sagittarius along the ecliptic line are the spring constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries. None of these are as striking as the winter ones we are losing in the west.
Early in September the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn are together in Sagittarius. The iconic constellation Crux (the Southern Cross) and the two Pointers in Centaurus are setting early evening in the southwest, while the bright stars Achernar and Canopus are rising in the southeast. To identify Achernar just extend a line through the long axis of Crux. Because they are on opposite sides of the southern circumpolar sky, when one is low on the horizon, the other is near its highest point.
Canopus is the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius and during early evenings in spring, it will be found low in the southeast. From the North Island, Canopus briefly dips below the southern horizon. During times when it’s close to the horizon, the motion of Earth’s atmosphere can cause Canopus to flash different colours and even appear to jiggle about. This is a common meteorological phenomenon called ‘scintillation’, sometimes causing Canopus to be reported as a UFO. While this is true for any bright star close to the horizon, the scintillation is more obvious with bright white stars, like Canopus and Sirius.
Looking due north in early September you will see two bright stars. Vega is low down (and harder to spot from 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 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 (the winged horse). Its notable feature is that it is shaped like a large square (the Great Square of Pegasus). The constellation Andromeda runs off the lower eastern corner of the Great Square and if you trace that line with binoculars you may pick out the 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 our skies and is seen best from the Far North.
Looking now to the south, from early September soon after dark, you will see Crux (the Southern Cross) on its side in the southwestern 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. Viewed from Cape Reinga it just skims the southern horizon, while from Invercargill it is very noticeably higher.
Mercury is too close to the Sun in the evening sky to see during September but by late October it is in the evening sky, low in the west in company with Venus. On 30 October Mercury and Venus can be spotted in the twilight below the thin crescent Moon. Mercury is too close to the Sun until making a reappearance in the eastern dawn sky late in November.
Venus sets soon after the Sun during September. It remains low in the western sky after sunset but by late November it can be seen in close company with Jupiter, low in the west in the evening twilight.
Mars passes behind the Sun during the spring but by late November it can be spotted low in the east just before sunrise.
Jupiter will be high overhead early evening and well placed for viewing with a telescope. Jupiter will be high overhead soon after sunset but setting a little earlier each night. By October you will need to view it early and by November it is too low in the western sky for good viewing. By late November it will be setting early, in company with Venus.
During September and October Saturn is high in the sky early evening so well placed to look at with a telescope. From early November it is seen lower in the west after sunset and its best viewing period is finished for the year.