STAR CHARTS, Stardome Observatory and Planetarium
Check the Stardome website each month to download free star charts for night sky exploring. These charts help beginners recognise the major landmarks of the night sky and follow the motions of the bright planets.
There's also the monthly Sky Spotter update which tells you what's visible for the current month, and the Sky Guide for a three-month overview of the planets and their positions.
Click the month to download the pair of star charts – one looking east, the other west. Only the most prominent constellations are shown.
How to use the star charts
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.
Each chart will match the sky at the times given in the table on each page.
- 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 might block your view of objects near 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've all seen when watching the Sun or Moon set.
- Locate the ‘OVERHEAD’ marker for each chart - this will help orientate 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 made for Auckland's latitude (37° south). (From say, 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 example, on the ‘JANUARY – WEST’ chart, the positions of the planets are calculated for mid-January at 10pm. For Saturn and Jupiter that move slowly, their positions will stay similar to the chart. However, Mercury, Venus and Mars move quite quickly relative to the stars, so their positions on the charts can be different.
SKY SPOTTER - JANUARY 2022
SKY SPOTTER – DECEMBER 2021
Three nicely aligned planets grace the western sky in the evenings. Venus, bottom left, is at its brightest in early December. Above and to its right lies pale yellow Saturn and continuing the line we find bright Jupiter. The Moon glides by the trio from the 6th to the 9th. By late December Venus is setting and Saturn is becoming faint in the twilight. Mercury will be to the left of Venus on December 27th but will be very hard to see.
Above and slightly left, three prominent stars form a similar though crooked line angling up the sky – from Peacock lower in the southwest, through Al Nair, to Fomalhaut higher in the west. Meanwhile, to the right of the planets, Pegasus’ great square tilts left towards northwest. Below its northern edge, on dark moonless nights, sharp northern eyes might spot the Andromeda galaxy (M31) earlier in the month.
Further right, between north and northeast, the Pleiades cluster (Matariki) glimmers tantalizingly. To Matariki’s right, the Hyades cluster together with orange Aldebaran (Taurus’ eye), form an inverted “V”. Further right, Orion (the hunter) rises higher as the nights pass. Bright Rigel is at the top with red Betelgeuse below. In the middle the three belt stars parallel the horizon. A line drawn from Matariki through Orion’s belt ends at brilliant Sirius of Canis Major (the big dog).
Higher in the southeast, brilliant Canopus leads its constellation Carina (the keel) upward. Achernar of Eridanus (the river) is very high in the south. More or less below Achernar lies the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). Fuzzy 47 Tucanae, hard to see, is just to the right of the SMC. Low, just east of south, the Southern Cross tracks eastward.
Later in December tiny Mars becomes visible in the brightening sky before sunrise. Low in the sky, just south of east, it should be seen below and left of brighter Antares (the brightest star in Scorpius), both looking faintly red.
The Geminids meteor shower peaks on December 14th but can be worthwhile for several days either side. Though the Geminids favour the northern hemisphere it is a prolific shower so observers looking northwards after midnight, after moonset, and away from city lights may be rewarded.
DECEMBER 2021 - JANUARY 2022 - FEBRUARY 2022
The warm air and clear skies of summer make this season the perfect time for exploring our beautiful Southern Hemisphere skies.
There are some key landmarks to find to begin learning about the summer sky. First look north and find the three bright stars in a line, often called The Pot. These stars make up Orion’s Belt, one of the most distinctive guides in the night sky.
Below Orion’s Belt is the bright orange-coloured star Betelgeuse, a massive star that is a supernova in waiting. Directly above the Belt is Rigel, another luminous supergiant star, which is much hotter and tinted blue. Both these stars are much more massive and luminous than our Sun. Below Orion near the horizon you will see the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux.
Extend the line of the Belt stars to the right (east) to find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and a celestial neighbour at only eight light-years distant. Now extending the Belt line to the left (west) you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus marking the bull’s eye. Continue that line further to the left and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades (Matariki). The unaided eye detects about seven stars in dark settings though many more are seen using binoculars.
Following a line up through Orion towards the south brings you to Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky after Sirius. Canopus, known as Atutahi in Māori culture, dominates our view overhead during the summer. It is the brightest star in the major southern constellation of Carina and lies about 40 times further from us than Sirius. 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 using the charts to identify more of the constellations.
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 respectively on the star charts) and are named after the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), who first described them. These two dwarf galaxies are the two closest galaxies to our much larger Milky Way Galaxy. For early evening viewing away from city lights on a moonless night, they are easily seen with the naked eye and reach their highest point due south around early January. They can be seen better using binoculars. The distance to the LMC is about 160,000 light-years, while that of the SMC is about 210,000 light-years.
For the uninitiated Mercury is often a challenge to spot since it is never far from the Sun’s glare. In late December and early January, it lies very close to the horizon, west of southwest after sunset but will be very difficult to see. The planet swaps to the eastern sky before sunrise for the entire month of February. It will be further from the Sun’s glare at this time and will be identifiable below and right of much brighter Venus.
Venus continues to dazzle in the western sky through December but by New Year is too close to the Sun. It passes around the near side of the Sun on January 9th. A little later in the month it peaks over the eastern horizon before sunrise. Being the second planet from the Sun, Venus strays further from the Sun than Mercury, and very quickly ascends to dominate February’s pre-dawn eastern sky.
Mars begins the season very close to the pre-dawn horizon east of southeast and very hard to see. As the weeks pass it rises progressively earlier. It is helpfully identified by close passes of the Moon on New Year’s morning and again on January 30th. Over the remainder of the summer Venus draws ever closer and they form a trio with the Moon on February 28th.
Jupiter shines brightly in the western sky during the December evenings and into the New Year. As January runs into February the Sun’s glare progressively steals its glory and before the season is done the giant planet is lost to our view.
Pale yellow Saturn, below and left of Jupiter, persists through December but is swallowed up by the setting Sun’s glare in January. The planet returns in the east just prior to sunrise in late February, faintly visible below Mercury.