STAR CHARTS & SKY SPOTTER

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 (below) 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.

July 2022

August 2022

September 2022

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 blue 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. This is also true for the naked eye planets, however, Uranus and Neptune are shown out of scale since 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 

SEPTEMBER 2022 

In early September Mercury is visible low in the west just after sunset. As the evenings pass it is quickly lost to the Sun’s glare. Saturn materialises in the east as the skies darken and remains visible until dawn. It is a beautiful target for evening telescopes. Early in the month Jupiter rises in the mid-evenings. By month’s end it’s rising as the Sun sets and is well placed for telescopes by late evening. The Moon passes very close to Jupiter in the early hours of the 12th. Mars remains a morning planet, rising well after midnight, ending up in the northern sky by dawn.

Spica of Virgo (the maiden) follows Mercury into the dusk. High above Virgo is Scorpius. Early in September about 8pm, the scorpion’s tail, Corona Australis (the southern crown), and the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius (the archer), lie overhead. The teapot’s spout appears to tip into the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Also early in September, orange Arcturus of Boötes (the herdsman) twinkles as it sets west of northwest. To its right, beyond the faint constellations Corona Borealis and Hercules, the bright star Vega of Lyra (the lyre) stands out in the north. As the night goes on, as with the passing of days, Deneb of Cygnus (the swan) rises to Vega’s right. Together they form the baseline of the ‘Summer Triangle’. At the triangle’s apex, midway up the sky, is Altair of Aquila (the eagle).

Just below Altair lies faint little Sagitta (the arrow). To its right is Delphinus (the dolphin) and then Equuleus (the little horse), making three little constellations in a row.

Later in the month mighty Pegasus (the winged horse) emerges from the northeastern horizon.

Fainter Pisces (the fishes) and Cetus (the whale) rise either side of Jupiter. High in the southeast, three equidistant stars, Fomalhaut, Al Nair, and Peacock, form a long crooked line angling up the sky. Lower in the southeast is Achernar, while Canopus 'may' be seen twinkling on the southern horizon. In the southwest Crux is on its side with the Southern Pointers Alpha and Beta Centauri above.

Mercury in colour. Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Click for full size.

SKY GUIDE SPRING 2022

SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER 2022

The evenings are stretching out as we watch the iconic constellations of winter setting earlier and earlier. You will notice that Orion is returning, bringing with it visions of beach holidays and warm nights.

Our spring sky features the setting of the important winter constellations of Libra, Scorpius, and Sagittarius. Scorpius will be seen plunging into the western horizon and as it does so Orion, the major constellation of the summer night sky, rises in the east. Following Sagittarius along the ecliptic line are the spring constellations of Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, and Aries. None are as striking as the winter ones setting in the west.

BRIGHTEST OBJECTS

The prominent planets in the spring evenings are Saturn and Jupiter. They lie within the boundaries of the faint constellations Capricornus and Pisces and are easily the brightest objects within. In late November Mars is low in the northeast in the late evenings in the constellation of Taurus.

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 Aquila, with its bright star Altair, is the small but quite distinctive constellation of Delphinus (the Dolphin).

PEGASUS

Around the end of November, as soon as the sky is dark, you will easily identify the constellation of Pegasus. Its notable feature is its large square shape, commonly called the ‘Great Square of Pegasus’. The constellation Andromeda runs off the lower right-hand corner of the Great Square and if you trace that line with binoculars, you may pick out the famous 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 the New Zealand sky and is a challenge to see from Southland.

CRUX (SOUTHERN CROSS)

Looking now to the south, from early September soon after dark you should see Crux (the Southern Cross) on its side in the south-western 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 — it just skims the southern horizon when viewed from Cape Reinga but in Invercargill it is noticeably higher. Remember though that when Crux is near its lowest point in the sky, it may be hidden behind trees, buildings, or hills, depending on your location.

CANOPUS AND ACHERNAR

The two bright stars of the southern sky to learn are Canopus and Achernar. To find Achernar it is easiest to imagine a line extending through the long axis of the Southern Cross. Because they are on opposite sides of the southern circumpolar sky, when one is low near the horizon, the other is at its highest point.

As the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, Canopus is also easy to spot. The catch with Canopus is that for a brief period it dips below the southern horizon, at least in the North Island. Apart from that, during early evenings in spring, Canopus will be found low in the southeast. During these times when it’s close to the horizon, the motion of Earth’s atmosphere can cause Canopus to flash different colours and possibly even appear to jiggle about. While this is a common meteorological phenomenon called ‘scintillation’, it frequently causes Canopus to be reported as a UFO. Scintillation is commonly seen for any bright star close to the horizon, but it is more obvious on bright white stars like Canopus.

VISIBLE PLANETS DURING SPRING 2022

MERCURY

Like Venus, Mercury is closer to the Sun than Earth which means it is visible only towards the horizon in the twilight sky. In early September it is visible low in the west just after sunset, but for the remainder of the season is too close to the Sun for us to see.

VENUS

Venus reaches superior conjunction on October 23rd. This means it will be closely aligned with the Sun on the opposite side. From Earth’s perspective Venus stays too close to the Sun for spring viewing.

MARS

Mars rises after 1am at the beginning of September and by the end of spring is rising before 10pm. Throughout the spring it remains visible until dawn when it fades into the gathering light in the north to north-western sky.

JUPITER

In late September grand Jupiter rises at sunset and is visible until dawn. A nearly full Moon slips close by in the early hours of September 12th. In the mid to late spring evenings Jupiter is ideally placed for telescope viewing high in the northern sky, especially in the later hours. Its four large moons are easily spotted with modest telescopes.

SATURN

Saturn is high in the evening sky throughout spring and is also well placed for telescope viewing. Even modest telescopes reveal its rings in their splendour. Over the next few years our view of the rings will deteriorate as we see them from an increasingly edge-on perspective.

An Expedition 40 crew member aboard the International Space Station recorded this colorful image of Aurora Australis on July 15, 2014. Achernar appears just to the right of centre. Source: Johnson Space Center, NASA. Click for full size.