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.

March 2022

April 2022

May 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 

MAY 2022 

A total lunar eclipse occurs below our horizon on May 16th. The partial stage of the eclipse will continue from moonrise until 5.55 p.m. See here for exact times and phases.

Constellation Orion sets earlier as the evenings pass. As it sets, the ‘pot’ lies due west with its handle (Orion’s sword) pointing south. To Orion’s right, the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, set in the northwest.

Above Orion, brilliant Sirius marks the collar of Canis Major (the big dog). To Sirius’ right is Procyon of Canis Minor (the small dog), and further right, roughly north, is Leo (the Lion). A sickle shaped pattern of stars marks its head with Leo’s brightest star Regulus atop.

To the lion’s right, high in the sky approximately northeast, lies the twisted quadrilateral of Corvus (the crow). The crow soars above white Spica of Virgo (the maiden). Below her, orange Arcturus of Bootes (the herdsman) twinkles early in the evening.

Further right, south of east, the bold winter constellation Scorpius rises. At its heart is Antares, a red giant star, its name meaning ‘rival of Mars’. Below the Scorpion’s tail, standing on its handle, the ‘teapot’ asterism of Sagittarius (the archer) is just rising. Above Scorpius, in dark skies, the many stars of Lupus (the wolf) and Centaurus (the centaur) can be seen, the latter extending over Crux (the southern cross). By the end of May, Crux is getting close to its zenith, high in the south.

In the hours before dawn Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and Venus are well placed north of east. Saturn rises first and by 6 a.m. is high in the sky with the others below and to its right.

On the morning of the 1st Venus and Jupiter are separated by just ¼ degree. As the days pass Venus drops away and Jupiter ascends, the latter meeting Mars early on the 30th.

The Moon forms a lovely trio with Mars and Jupiter on the 25th then catches Venus on the 27th.

The eta-Aquarids meteor shower peaks in the early hours of the 6th with its radiant just to the left of Mars. See here for an interactive meteor shower map.

The Milky Way in the night sky. (Source: Luke Stackpoole | rawpixel)


SKY GUIDE AUTUMN

MARCH, APRIL, MAY 2022

As the Autumn nights get longer and cooler some new landmarks of the night sky come into view. During March, early in the night, Canis Major (the great dog) and Orion (the hunter) are well placed for viewing and well-worth exploring with binoculars. High in the north there are three bright stars in a line. These stars make up the ‘Belt of Orion’ - also known to us in Aotearoa as Tautoru. They are one of the most distinctive landmarks of the night sky.

Extending the line of the belt stars upward and to the right you will find Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Extend the line down and left from the belt and you will find the orange star, Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. Continue that line further and you will find the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades – known to us in Aotearoa as Matariki – but be sure to look in March and April, as Matariki will be hidden by the Sun in May.

Back at Orion’s Belt, identify the bright stars Rigel (white) and Betelgeuse (reddish) which, in early Autumn, are above left and below right of the belt, respectively. Those two bright stars, together with two slightly fainter ones enclose most of Orion with the belt being in the middle. A small line of fainter stars above and left of the belt marks Orion’s sword. One of these ‘stars’ is the magnificent Orion Nebula (M42), the closest massive star forming region to us. It is a stunning sight even in backyard telescopes.

In the south-eastern sky, Scorpius, also known as Maui’s fishhook, is seen rising around midnight in March. By the month of May, it will be rising in the early evening just as Orion is setting, Thus, Scorpius will become the dominant feature of our evening sky until spring. Further south, Crux, Carina and Centaurus are also major features of our autumn and winter skies.

During March, Canopus of Carina is high overhead. Canopus, or Atutahi, was a key guide star used by the Polynesian voyagers and today it is used to guide interplanetary spacecraft.

In May, Canopus will be found in the southwest while Crux (the Southern Cross) will be high in the south-eastern sky. This is a very rich stellar region to explore with binoculars. The densest region of the Milky Way will rise with the scorpion’s tail later in autumn while the Magellanic Clouds (dwarf galaxies) remain quite nicely placed just west of south.

VISIBILITY OF THE NAKED EYE PLANETS

This autumn our evening skies are devoid of naked eye planets. Instead, they grace the morning sky in the hours immediately before sunrise. The Moon sweeps by in the closing days of each month and there are some spectacular conjunctions and lovely planetary alignments in April and May.

MERCURY

The best opportunities to observe Mercury are in early March before sunrise low in the eastern sky. It passes by fainter Saturn on March 3rd then quite quickly slips into the Sun’s glare over the following weeks. It returns to the evening sky from mid-April to mid-May, but these appearances will not be so favourable.

VENUS

Venus is brilliant in the pre-dawn eastern sky and is well placed for viewing for the entire season. Throughout March it serves as a signpost for much fainter Mars. It reaches its highest altitude in the morning sky on March 26th then slips by Saturn over the following days. Venus has a very close encounter with Jupiter on May 1st.

MARS

During March Mars is visible in the pre-dawn sky in company with Venus. It has a close encounter with Saturn on April 5th/6th and an equally close pairing with Jupiter on May 30th.

JUPITER

Jupiter rises just ahead of the Sun from late March. It rises steadily earlier as the weeks pass and meets brighter Venus on May 1st. This will be a very close and spectacular conjunction. Jupiter forms a nice pairing with fainter Mars on May 30th.

SATURN

In early March Saturn is faintly visible low in the east just before sunrise. By late May it is rising before midnight. Saturn meets Mercury, which is brighter, on March 3rd. It encounters Venus on March 30th, and then Mars on April 5th.

 

Canopus, the second-brightest star in the sky, is visible in this view photographed by astronaut Donald R. Pettit, Expedition 6 NASA ISS science officer, on board the International Space Station (ISS).  (Source: NASA)