STAR CHARTS & SKY SPOTTER

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 2023

Star chart January 2024

Star chart February 2024

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 

FEBRUARY 2024

In early February, as it gets dark, faint Saturn appears briefly just south of west and very low. It is below and left of the Moon on the 11th. On the 15th the Moon visits glowing Jupiter which commands the northwestern sky for the entire month.

In the early mornings Venus is brilliant in the east-southeast. It daily descends and slips very close-by tiny Mars on the 22nd. Mars now rises before twilight and will become more visible over the coming months. Mercury begins the month close to Mars and, though initially easier to see, quickly slips into the Sun’s glare over the ensuing days. A lovely crescent Moon slips by the three on the 8th and 9th.

As the sky darkens, three equidistant stars, Peacock, Alnair, and Fomalhaut, form a long crooked line close to and roughly parallel with the southwestern horizon. High above central Alnair, is bright Achernar of Eridanus (the river). A star chart helps us trace Eridanus westward and all the way to Orion in the north.

Orion (the hunter) is high towards the north this month. A line extended along the three stars of his belt (tautoro) runs through the Hyades and Matariki clusters below left, and to brilliant Sirius of Canis Major (the great dog) above right. Below Orion, very low, northerners might spot twinkling Capella of Auriga (the charioteer). The Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, are higher than Capella and off to its right, north-north-east. Further right, east-northeast, Regulus of Leo (the lion) is rising.

Canopus of Carina (the keel) dazzles overhead just south of the zenith. Approximately southeast we find Crux (the Southern Cross) with the Diamond and False Crosses easily spotted above it. The Diamond points to the Large Magellanic Cloud high in the south. A line from Crux (the Southern Cross) takes us up through the Small Cloud and on to Achernar of Eridanus (the river).

Jupiter's banded appearance is created by the cloud-forming "weather layer." In this composite image, the image on the left show's Jupiter's thermal energy being emitted in infrared light, with dark cloudy bands appearing as silhouettes against Jupiter's thermal glow. The image on the right shows Jupiter's appearance in visible light, with white cloudy "zones" and the relatively cloud-free "belts" appearing as red-brown colors. The composite was created using infrared data collected by the Gemini North telescope (left) and a visible-light image taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Both images were created from data captured on Jan. 11, 2017. Source: NASA JPL. Click for full size. 

SKY GUIDE SUMMER 2023-24

DECEMBER 2023 | JANUARY 2024 | FEBRUARY 2024

The warm holiday months are the easiest to begin exploring Aotearoa’s beautiful night skies.

The summer sky

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), 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.

PLANETS VISIBLE WITH THE NAKED EYE DURING SUMMER 2023-24

MERCURY

Mercury’s appearances over the summer will not be as favourable as some, nevertheless opportunities exist. In early December it appears low in the west just after sunset. Through most of January and early February it will be found below and right of brilliant Venus in the east. On January 28 it will draw extremely close to fainter Mars.

VENUS

Venus is dazzling in the morning skies as it rises before twilight for most of the season. It will make a very close pass of faint Mars on February 22/23.

MARS

Mars returns to our morning skies and becomes more visible later in January. Brighter Mercury descends for an extremely close pass on January 28. In February Mars is rising before the beginning of twilight and will be easier to see as it further separates from the Sun. Dazzling Venus slips by on February 22/23.

JUPITER

Jupiter is king of the evening skies throughout the summer season. In December it appears east of north as the sky darkens and is setting within two hours of sunrise. By season’s end it pops into the darkening sky in the northwest and sets in the late evenings.

SATURN

Saturn remains nice and bright in the western sky through December and into January. A thin crescent Moon is close-by on January 14. From then on it will set before twilight ends and becomes increasingly difficult to see. In February it is lost from view.

Star Map of the Milky Way's Outer Halo. Images of the Milky Way and the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) are overlaid on a map of the surrounding area, our galaxy's galactic halo. Dark blue represents a low concentration of stars; lighter blues indicate increasing stellar density. The map spans from about 200,000 light-years to 325,000 light-years from the galactic center and provides the first clear view of the major features in this region. Source: JPL. Click here for full size.