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.

Star chart December 2022

Star chart January 2023

Star chart February 2023

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 

JANUARY 2023 

Very low in the west Venus is not too difficult to see just after sunset. Saturn begins January higher in the west but slips further into the Sun’s glare as the nights pass. Very faint, it meets Venus on the 23rd, as a thin crescent Moon lies to their left. Between west and northwest brilliant Jupiter lies partway up the sky, and on the 26th the Moon slips by. Orange Mars is quite bright in a northerly direction with the Moon close-by on the 31st.

There are not many bright stars in the evening’s western sky. Fomalhaut is the most prominent, just south of west and lying about the same altitude as Jupiter. To Fomalhaut’s left lies Alnair, and then the Peacock Star. These three stars are roughly equidistant and together form a long crooked line sloping down towards the south. As January progresses the three-star line increasingly parallels the horizon.

Pegasus’ great square sets in the northwest in early January. Near the north Matariki glimmers tantalisingly. Above and to its right, the Hyades cluster with orange Aldebaran of Taurus (the bull) form a triangle shape above brighter Mars. Northern observers will see twinkling Capella of Auriga (the charioteer) very near the northern horizon later in the month. Further right, in the northeast, the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux rise during the month. Above is grand Orion (the hunter) whose belt stars point eastward toward brilliant Sirius of Canis Major (the big dog). Below Sirius, Procyon marks Canis Minor (the little dog). Sirius, Procyon, and red Betelgeuse of Orion form a perfect equilateral triangle.

Brilliant Canopus, high in the southeast, lies above the False Cross asterism. Another asterism, the Diamond Cross, is just below and right of the False Cross. The Diamond points to the Large Magellanic Cloud high in the south. Crux (the Southern Cross) is low in the south-south-east and points across the sky to the Small Magellanic Cloud, both clouds visible in a dark sky.

Before daylight, late in January, Mercury is nicely visible low in the east-south-eastern sky.

The Small Magellanic Cloud, shown here, is a dwarf galaxy orbiting the Milky Way. The image includes data from the ESA (European Space Agency) Herschel mission, supplemented with data from ESA's retired Planck observatory and two retired NASA missions: the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) and Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). Image source: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech/CSIRO/NANTEN2/C. Clark (STScI). Click here to download.

SKY GUIDE SUMMER 2022-23

DECEMBER 2022, JANUARY 2023 & FEBRUARY 2023

The balmy nights of summer and holidays away from the city provide the perfect time to explore our beautiful Southern Hemisphere skies.

Tautoru / Orion's Belt 

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, known as Tautoru, and often called The Pot. These stars are 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, known to us as Matariki. The unaided eye might detect 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). These are named after the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), who first documented them, although in Māori culture they can be referred to as Pātari-rangi and Pātari-kaihau. 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 the SMC is about 200,000 light-years away.

 

VISIBLE PLANETS DURING SUMMER 2022-23

MERCURY

For the uninitiated Mercury is often a challenge to spot since it is never far from the Sun’s glare. Around mid-December it is faintly visible very low south of west soon after sunset. Better viewing opportunities exist from late January to late February low in the eastern sky as the sky begins to brighten.

VENUS

Venus gradually emerges from the setting Sun’s glare as summer progresses. In February’s darkening sky, it is more easily seen, very low in the west.

MARS

In early December Mars rises in the northeast at sunset and is visible all night. The red planet won’t appear this bright again until May 2031! Although gradually fading it will dominate the late summer evening’s northern sky, outshining its background stars.

JUPITER

Jupiter remains very prominent in the evenings throughout December and January. By late February it is becoming more difficult to see as it slips into the glow of the setting Sun.

SATURN

Saturn remains quite bright in the western sky through December. As we move into January the Sun’s glare begins to swallow it up and it is soon lost from view.

Nearly 200,000 light-years from Earth, the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, floats in space, in a long and slow dance around our galaxy. Vast clouds of gas within it slowly collapse to form new stars. In turn, these light up the gas clouds in a riot of colours, visible in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Click for full size.