Star Charts

Our Star Charts are updated monthly. Keep checking back here for the latest guide to the stars above.

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Star Chart for April 2016 – Western Sky
Star Chart for April 2016 – Eastern Sky
Star Chart for May 2016 – Western Sky
Star Chart for May 2016 – Eastern Sky

AUTUMN SKY GUIDE

MARCH 2016  I APRIL 2016  I MAY 2016

Autumn brings the transition between winter and summer stars. During the cooler months the zodiac constellations Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius all make an appearance.

Autumn Highlights

As Orion and Canis Major start sinking into the west after sunset, we know that autumn is here. In addition, low in the northwest is the gem-like star cluster Matariki (the Pleiades), disappearing into the Sun’s glare. It will reappear in the late June dawn sky when we celebrate its heliacal rising and Matariki.

Higher in the autumn evening sky the heavens appear less populated than in summer – and winter, as you will see. This is a result of Earth’s night side not facing the arching sprawl of stars that make up the central parts of the Milky Way Galaxy. Nevertheless, a number of interesting constellations pepper the sky overhead.

High in the east Corvus (the crow) takes flight, followed closely by Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. Virgo is one of those constellations that is challenging to decipher. Low in the northeast is brilliant Arcturus, the brightest star in Bootes (the herdsman) – and the brightest star in the northern hemisphere. Higher in the north is Leo. The orange star Regulus sits at the tip of the handle commonly known as ‘the sickle’. The sickle of Leo is an example of an ‘asterism’ – a group of stars that make a distinctive pattern either contained within a constellation or spanning constellation boundaries. Asterisms are well known to stargazers but they have no official status.

High overhead at about 10pm in mid-April are the important southern constellations Vela, Carina and Centaurus with Crux (the Southern Cross). Spanning the boundary of Vela and Carina is another distinctive asterism called the ‘false cross’. It is a larger but fainter version of the Southern Cross.

Centaurus boasts the largest and brightest globular cluster in the sky. It is visible to the naked eye looking like a faint star. However, binoculars show it better as a fuzzy ball containing an estimated four million stars, while a telescope shows much more of its true character. The light from Omega Centauri takes 16,000 years to reach us!

Below the famous compact constellation of Crux are the two bright stars we call ‘the Pointers’ because they point to the Cross. The brighter of the Pointers is Alpha Centauri, famous because it is one of the closest stars to the Sun and because it is really two stars (a binary) which can be seen individually in a telescope. The light from Alpha Centauri takes 4.3 years to reach us.

Looking into the low southeast we start seeing some of the leading stars that will dominate the long cold nights of winter. The most prominent is Scorpius, rising in the east as Orion sets in the west.

 

Mercury
Mercury can be found low in the west soon after sunset on 19 April but is difficult to spot.

Venus
In autumn Venus sets or rises with the Sun so it is not observable.

Mars
Mars is close to the head of Scorpius, rising earlier each night until it rises exactly as the Sun sets on 22 May. On this date Mars is at opposition and is closer to Earth than at any time in the last 11 years. This is the ideal time for looking at Mars through a telescope. It is also noticeably brighter, rivalling Jupiter. Throughout autumn Mars remains close to Saturn and Antares, making a striking conjunction.

Jupiter
Jupiter reaches opposition on 8 March in Leo at which time it rises as the Sun sets and is high overhead around midnight. This is the ideal time to observe Jupiter as it is at its closest to Earth for the year.

Saturn
Saturn is high in the sky before dawn, close to Mars and Antares in the constellation Scorpius. It is rising shortly after sunset as it gets closer to opposition.