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Nine Constellations You Can Spot While Star Gazing

Summertime, with its warm evenings and generally clear skies, simply lends itself to star gazing. Sitting by the campfire, out on a night stroll, or anywhere away from the glare of the city, and you’re likely to see a slew of stars against the black sky.
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It does take some practice, but identifying constellations is rewarding. In the Northern Hemisphere, some constellations, like Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Cassiopeia are circumpolar, meaning they can be viewed year round and are easier to learn. Other constellations depend on your location, latitude, and season, and because of the earth’s rotation, the constellations will change position throughout the night. But if you head outside on a summer night in the Northern Hemisphere, these are some of the constellations to look for. 

The Big Dipper

Orienting yourself due north, the easiest thing to see is the Big Dipper, which is part of the Ursa Major constellation. The dipper looks like a square pot with a long handle, with its handle pointing towards the horizon.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper)

 

Using the two stars at the top edge of the pot of the Big Dipper, draw a straight line out and you’ll find Polaris, or the North Star. The North Star is at the handle of the little dipper. The Little Dipper is harder to make out than the Big, since it’s composed of fewer stars. But if you know that the North Star is the end of the handle, and the two stars below it make up the right side of the pot, you can find it a little more easily. The Little Dipper and Big Dipper are always facing each other, with the handles pointing in opposite directions.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

Draco (the Dragon)

Once you have a visual picture of the big and little dipper, Draco, the dragon, is easy to make out. The tail of the dragon winds between the dippers, forming a u-shape. Its head is below the bowl of the little dipper and is in the shape of a diamond. 

 

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Bootes (the Herdsman or Shepherd)

Going back to the Big Dipper, follow the handle down to a bright star, called Arcturus. This is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the herdsman. Bootes looks like a kite, with Arcturus at the bottom point of the kite.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer)

Looking below Bootes, you’ll likely see Corona Borealis, a small constellation that is visible year-round in the Northern Hemisphere. This constellation is a small group of stars that forms a U-shape; I can usually spot this one fairly easily, as the stars are in a distinct cluster. Moving south from here you can see a teapot-shaped constellation, with a squarish bottom and a triangle top. This is Ophiuchus, a large summer constellation that is visible from June through October. Stemming from the right is Serpens Caput and to the left is Serpens Cauda, hence the name, Serpent Bearer.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Hercules

Heading north from Ophiuchus and east from the Corona Borealis is Hercules, which makes its way across the sky from April until October. Hercules is composed of four relatively bright stars that make a square, with legs and arms jutting out to the sides.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Lyra, the Summer Triangle, and Northern Cross

East of Hercules, you’ll find an extremely bright star, Vega, which is often the brightest in the summer sky. Vega is one of the three stars that make up the summer triangle; it is also part of the constellation Lyra, which is in the shape of a lyre, or a small harp. Lyra can be hard to find, but using Vega as a starting point, you can see a small parallelogram composed of four stars, with Vega a part of the handle. Looking south from Vega, one can find the second star in the summer triangle, Altair, part of the Aquila (eagle) constellation. North of Vega is another bright star, Deneb, which makes up the final point in the summer triangle. Together, they form an almost perfect right triangle. Denab is part of the constellation Cygnus (the Swan), which is in the form of a “T” and is commonly known as the Northern Cross. The top of the cross is the tip of the summer triangle.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sagittarius (the Archer) and Scorpius (the Scorpion)

Low on the horizon is Sagittarius, the Archer. This constellation is supposed to be a torso of a man riding a horse, pointing his arrow at another summertime constellation, Scorpius. The entire constellation can be hard to make out, but the top, which resembles a tea pot with handle and spout, is easier to see. Moving west, look for Antares, an extremely bright star that often glows red, which resides in the heart of the Scorpius, the Scorpion. This constellation does actually resemble a scorpion, with a curved tail and head, but is missing the pinchers.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Casseopia

If you’re lucky, you’ll see the Milky Way, the white swath of stars that spans from the northern to southern sky. At the top, it’s usually easy to see Cassiopeia, which forms a “W” in the winter and an “M” in the summer.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These are just a few of the constellations you’ll be able to make out during the summer months and it’s tough enough to find these amidst the other stars. But getting outside and gazing is all part of the fun.

 

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