STAR CHARTS & SKY SPOTTER, Stardome Observatory and Planetarium
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.
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.
Planet Mercury, usually elusive, becomes easy to spot low in the west soon after sunset. Pale yellow Saturn climbs ever higher in the evening’s eastern sky. It is soon the ‘go to’ for telescope viewing, particularly later in the evenings. In early August much brighter Jupiter rises about 10:30pm then a little earlier with each passing night. Jupiter and the Moon form a striking pair as they rise together at about 9:30pm on the 15th.
Corvus (the crow), a squashed quadrilateral, sinks towards the western horizon. To its right, a little higher, is Spica of Virgo (the maiden). Further right and lower, is orange Arcturus of Boötes (the herdsman).
To Arcturus’ right, low towards north, are the faint constellations Corona Borealis (the northern crown) and Hercules (son of Zeus). Further right, just east of north and quite low, is bright Vega of Lyra (the lyre). Higher than Vega and to its right, lies Altair of Aquila (the eagle). Below and either side of Altair lie the faint little constellations Sagitta (the arrow) and Delphinus (the dolphin).
Prominent Scorpius, with red Antares at its heart, transits the zenith heading west. The Sagittarius ‘teapot’ is close to its stinger. Next to the teapot’s base lies faint Corona Australis (the southern crown). Over half-way down a line from Antares to Vega is Rasalhague, the brightest star in Ophiuchus (the serpent bearer).
In the southeast three almost equidistant stars form a long crooked line angling up the sky thus “/”. These are Fomalhaut, Alnair, and Peacock, marking their constellations Piscis Austrinus (the southern fish), Grus (the crane), and Pavo (the peacock). Low, east of south, is Achernar of Eridanus (the river) while Canopus of Carina (the keel) ‘may’ be seen twinkling on the horizon just west of south. Crux (the southern cross) lies on its side higher in the southwest. Omega Centauri, a fuzzy spot, lies above and to its right.
Just before sunrise Venus lies very close to the north-eastern horizon and becomes increasingly difficult to see. Orange Mars rises after midnight and lies partway up the northern sky just before dawn.
Saturn moons concept art. Gazing over the south pole of the small moon Enceladus, geysers burst forth from cracks in the ice, scattering sunlight and forming a luminous veil around Saturn. In the distance, the large moons Rhea (right) and Titan (left) make their rounds of the gas giant’s far side. Source: NASA/GSFC. Click for full size.
SKY GUIDE AUTUMN
JUNE, JULY, AUGUST 2022
Wrap up warm and head out at night to view the sparkling winter constellations. A special time of year, Matariki reappears, heralding the beginning of the Māori New Year. On June 24 we will enjoy our first national Matariki holiday!
The zodiac constellations of winter are Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius and Capricornus. The first three are particularly distinctive and won’t be forgotten once identified. During winter the Sun is low in our daytime sky. This means that any planets opposite the Sun in our night sky will be high above the horizon by the middle of the night. Therefore, the winter months provide the best opportunities to view the planets through a telescope. The solid blue line marked on the star charts is called the ‘ecliptic’, the plane of our Solar System along which the Sun and the planets are found.
You will also notice that the ecliptic crosses the plane of the Milky Way near the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. During mid-winter the Ecliptic passes nearly overhead around midnight so any planets near these constellations are ideally placed for viewing through a telescope. In late winter, around midnight, beautiful Saturn sits high in the sky. Residing in faint Capricornus, it significantly changes the look of that constellation.
In the northern sky during early winter, the orange star, Arcturus, is the main feature. It is the fourth brightest star in the night sky and the brightest in the constellation Bootes. By late winter Arcturus is setting earlier and has been replaced by the two bright stars Vega in Lyra and Altair in Aquila as the most prominent northern starry landmarks. In the far south of the country these northern stars don’t rise very high but are familiar to those in the north.
Looking south in early winter, the spectacular constellations of Crux, Centaurus and Carina are high up and the further south you are, the better the view. These regions are richly packed with stars and many star clusters that are well worth exploring with binoculars. By early August, the Scorpius-Sagittarius region is the one to explore during the early evening. This is the brightest and densest part of the Milky Way and it is seen best from the latitude of Aotearoa. When not competing with the light pollution of towns and cities (or the Moon), the light from billions and billions of stars combine to make ‘star clouds’ that can be seen with the naked eye. When looking at Sagittarius you are looking straight towards the heart of our galaxy with its recently imaged super-massive black hole at the centre.
The Southern Hemisphere winter solstice marks the time when the Sun reaches its northern most point in our sky — and therefore it is lowest in the sky at noon. In 2022 the solstice falls on 21 June (at 9:08pm) and signals the shortest day of the year. After that date, the Sun begins moving south again, extending our daylight and shortening the nights.
Māori named the beautiful cluster of stars in Taurus, Matariki. In English it is known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, and it has many other names around the world – it is known as Matali’i in Samoa, Makali’i in Hawaii, Subaru in Japan and Mataliki in Tokelau, Niue, Tuvalu, and Tonga. Rather less poetically astronomers usually call it M45. To our naked eyes between seven and nine stars can be seen, but the Matariki group is actually made up of thousands of stars that all formed at the same time around 100 million years ago.
Maramataka, the Māori calendar, is regulated by the cycle of the Moon. However, because the lunar calendar gets steadily out of alignment with the seasons, it is realigned periodically with the sighting of either Matariki or Puanga (Rigel) in the dawn sky in late June. The lunar phase at the time of sighting determines the timing of the Matariki celebrations and restarts the lunar calendar with the following new moon.
Matariki appears low in the northeastern sky in the winter. This means that it can’t be seen everywhere across the motu (islands of New Zealand), so although it is the name of the holiday, Matariki isn’t the constellation that is celebrated or observed by all iwi.
For many hapū (subtribes) and iwi, other stars are more visible and more significant, especially in places where maunga (mountains) might obscure the view of Matariki. Other stars that signal the new year include Rehua, the husband of Matariki (located on the opposite side of the sky), and Puanga above Tautoru.
How to find Matariki
The lovely planetary alignment of the autumn season continues into winter with the addition of Mercury. In June all five naked eye planets are visible spread across the sky in the predawn. In August, both giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are visible from late evening until dawn.
The best morning opportunities to observe Mercury are around the middle of June low in the northeast before sunrise. After an absence throughout most of July, Mercury returns to the evening sky in the west, and is very well placed from around mid-August.
Throughout June and July Venus continues to dominate the north-eastern sky before sunrise. On June 26th, the weekend of our first Matariki holiday, the Moon forms the apex of a pretty triangle with Matariki and Venus below. In August Venus sinks progressively closer to the Sun and becomes more difficult to see.
At the beginning of June Mars is close to much brighter Jupiter in the predawn sky. It rises about 2 a.m. in June and July and progressively earlier through August. In early June it is high in the northeast at dawn and by late August is crossing the northern meridian at that time. The Moon makes very close passes in the early hours of June 23rd and July 22nd.
At the beginning of June bright Jupiter is rising at 2 a.m. along with much fainter Mars. These planets quickly separate as Jupiter rises a little earlier each night. By the end of the season, it is rising about 8:30 p.m. The Moon pairs up nicely with Jupiter on June 22nd.
In early June Saturn rises before 11 p.m. and is high in the northwest as day begins to dawn. By mid-August it emerges from the eastern horizon as the Sun sets in the west, and vice versa. Saturn reaches opposition on August 15th and is well placed for telescope viewing in the late August evenings.