The bright stars return to the southern skies in summer. From the northern horizon, overhead, and down to the southern horizon you can follow a bright string of stars from Rigil Kent to Capella. This string of bright stars follows a fairly thick band of fainter stars along the same north-south path as the Milky Way followed in the winter months. This summer band of stars is also part of the Milky Way, but here we look in the other direction along the flat plane of our galaxy away from the center. While the star clouds here are not as thick, there are many bright foreground stars that render the sky this season as beautiful as any visible from Earth.
At the southern end of this band, Crux and the Southern Pointers are getting higher again in the southeast sky. The two brightest stars in the night sky, Canopus and Sirius, lie almost directly overhead, as do many slightly fainter stars in the constellation Vela and Puppis. Orion, the Hunter, is doing a handstand just north of the zenith. It is marked by nearly a dozen bright stars, especially Rigel and Betelgeuse.
Orion, the Hunter, is the feature constellation this time of year in both hemispheres, and it makes a good base of operations to find other constellations. It takes little imagination to see a hunter outlined in these stars, though from the southern hemisphere he is upside down. Below the little line of three stars in the belt are two stars marking his shoulders, one of which is the bright orange-red star Betelgeuse. Above his belt are two feet, one of which is marked by the bright blue star Rigel. Hanging off his belt are three fainter stars. This is the “Sword of Orion”. Look carefully at the middle star in the Sword. You will see it is slightly fuzzy. In fact this middle star is not a star at all. It is a nebula, a misty patch of glowing hydrogen gas where new stars are forming.
A view looking north in mid-February. Orion’s Belt points the way upward to Sirius and downward to the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus
Follow a line from Orion’s Belt to the south and east to see find blue-white Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens. The star is part of the constellation Canis Major, the Big Dog. North and slightly east of Sirius lies the star Procyon (“pro-SY-on”) in Canis Minor, the Little Dog.
The “False Cross”, which is larger and somewhat tilted compared to Crux. It lies between Crux and Canopus and consists of two stars from the constellation Vela and two from the constellation Carina.
Many stargazers first exploring the southern sky are confused by the so-called “False Cross” that resembles Crux, the Southern Cross (see image above). The real Southern Cross lies further to the south and very close to the two bright stars Rigil Kent and Hadar in the constellation Centaurus. The False Cross is closer to Canopus. It’s slightly larger and more oblique than Crux and consists of two stars in Carina and two stars in Vela.
Finally, follow the Belt of Orion to the north and west to arrive at a bright orange star over the northern horizon. This is the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus, which forms a small “V”-shape that marks the head of the bull which this constellation represents. Further north, just over the horizon, look for the bright yellow-white star Capella in the northern constellation Auriga. Follow a line northeast from Rigel in Orion’s foot through Betelgeuse in his shoulder to arrive at the two bright stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini, the northernmost of the constellations of the zodiac.