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
The warm holiday months are the easiest to begin exploring Aotearoa’s beautiful night skies.
There are some key landmarks to find to get started learning about the summer sky. First, face north and pick out the three bright stars in a line. These stars
make up Orion’s Belt, one of the most distinctive guides of the night sky, but in New Zealand they are commonly known simply as The Pot.
Extend the line of the Belt stars to the right (east) and you will find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Extend the line to the left (west) from the Belt and you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus. Continue that line further to the left and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades (Matariki). The bright star close to the northern horizon is Capella in Auriga. In northeast pick out the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux.
Returning to 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 in the middle.
Following a line up the sky through Orion towards the south brings you to Canopus, known as Atutahi to the Māori, the second brightest star of the night sky currently dominating the view overhead. It is the brightest star of the important southern constellation Carina yet its distance of 310 light-years has only been reliably determined in the last 20 years.
The final bright star to locate is Achernar, marking the end of the meandering constellation of Eridanus (the River). Once you have located these bright landmarks in the sky, you can explore further by identifying some of the other less prominent constellations.
Early risers around mid-January will be rewarded by the fine sight of Mars (red) and Jupiter (tawny) close together in the eastern sky. The beautiful constellation of Scorpius, with the red star Antares, adds to this picturesque gathering.
Spot the Magellanic Clouds
Two special features of our Southern Hemisphere night sky are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, marked as LMC and SMC on the star charts. They are two dwarf galaxies named after Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), the Portuguese explorer who first described them. Both are easily seen with the naked eye (but for better viewing, use binoculars) when away from city lights on a moonless night. They reach their highest point due south around early January. While they are ‘close’ to our much larger Milky Way Galaxy, the distance to the LMC is still about 160,000 light-years and the SMC about 200,000 light-years.
Mercury stays close to the Sun during the summer so it’s hard to spot. It will be very low in the east just before sunrise early in the New Year.
Venus remains too close to the Sun during the summer to be seen.
Mars is low in the east just before sunrise, in company with the bright star Spica early in December. It passes very close to Jupiter on 7 January and rises early each day. By mid-February it is close to the bright red star, Antares in Scorpius in the eastern sky before dawn.
Early in December Jupiter is low in the east just before sunrise, in company with the bright star Spica, and Mars. By February it is well placed for viewing before dawn near Mars and between the bright stars Spica and Antares.
Saturn is too close to the Sun to be spotted in December. Around 13 January it is close to Mercury low in the east before dawn. By the latter half of February Saturn will be high enough for good viewing in the east before dawn.