In the late spring, the Big Dipper is easy to find, high in the northwest after sunset. Connect the dots to imagine a big spoon or ladle high above.
The Big Dipper is not officially a constellation; it’s what astronomers sometimes call an asterism. It’s a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially used by observers in the United States, but it’s not one of the 88 constellations recognized by astronomers worldwide. Ursa Major the Great Bear is the official constellation here, but you’ll need dark skies to see its fainter stars.
Use the two stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is also officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.
Imagine poking a hole in the bottom of the Big Dipper to let the water drip out. The water falls onto the back of Leo the Lion. The head and mane of the lion are represented by a group of stars that looks something like a backwards question mark. Other stargazers imagine the top hook of a coat hanger, or a sickle in this group of stars. The “dot” at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in Leo. It marks the regal heart of the lion.
Go back to the Big Dipper once more and follow its curved handle to trace an ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars. Even under dark skies away from city lights, it’s hard to imagine these mythological figures just by connecting the dots.
Look to the southeast for the hook-shaped constellation Scorpius the Scorpion low in the south. The red star Antares marks the scorpion’s heart.
Just to the east of Scorpius is Sagittarius the Archer. To ancient civilizations it may have looked like a mythical centaur holding a bow and arrow, but to modern stargazers it looks a lot more like a teapot.
To the east are the three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Viewers with darker skies might find the fainter stars that make up the three constellations of the Triangle: Cygnus the Swan, Aquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp.
As the sky begins to darken, look low in the west for brilliant Venus, probably the first single point of light in the sky you’ll see.Night by night, Venus is catching up with the fainter planet Mars, now a dim red dot above and to the left of Venus. Venus won’t quite pass Mars - by the second week in July, Venus will appear to reverse course, setting earlier each night. Watch on the evenings of July 9 and 10 with Mars positioned extremely close to Regulus, with Venus not far away.
Watch for a beautiful crescent Moon near Venus on the evening of June 21.
From Dark Skies
Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights.
Evenings in late spring and early summer are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from Sagittarius and Scorpius, through the Summer Triangle and on towards Cassiopeia the Queen in the northeast. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.
As you look towards Scorpius and Sagittarius, you are looking in the direction of the dense center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Scan with binoculars or a telescope in this area to find many faint star clusters and nebulae throughout this part of the sky.
Look high in the east for the constellation Hercules. Four stars in Hercules form a trapezoid shape called the Keystone, after the top stone in an arch. Stay out a little late and the Keystone will eventually appear directly overhead. Imagine the Keystone holding up the arch of the sky!
Look near the Keystone for the globular cluster known as the Hercules Cluster, or M-13. Using binoculars, you may be able to spot a round-shaped glow. If that blurry glow doesn’t seem impressive, just remember that it’s a collection of around 300,000 stars, at a distance of over 22,000 light years, at an age of over 11 billion years old.
As the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the autumn night sky.
In the hours before dawn, the Summer Triangle is high overhead. Sagittarius is setting to the southwest. Autumn constellations such as Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess are high in the east.
Meanwhile, ringed planet Saturn rises above the horizon just after 1am around the beginning of June, and just before midnight as July begins. Mighty Jupiter rises a couple hours after Saturn. Both planets will be in the early evening sky by the autumn.
Before you set your alarm for the wee hours of the morning, consider planning out your observing. Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan ahead.
How to Use a Star Chart
Newcomers to star charts like this one may quickly notice what looks like a serious error: East and west are labelled backwards! But it’s no mistake: remember that this is a map of the sky, not of the ground. Flip it up over your head and look at it from below. The cardinal directions are correct!
If you’d rather not observe while holding a piece of paper over your head, that’s understandable. Hold the chart in front of you and face south. The bottom area of the chart feature stars that are in front of you. The top of the chart shows stars that are behind you, and the center of the chart is the sky straight overhead.
Want to look to the west instead? Just rotate the chart in your hands until west is at the bottom.