Spring Night Sky (Northern Hemisphere)

In April through mid-May, a few bright stars from winter constellations linger in the western sky about half an hour after sunset.  The bright yellow-white star Capella low in the northwestern sky is especially striking, as is the pair of stars Castor and Pollux just above the western horizon.  Have a quick look for these bright stars, but don’t spend too much time.  You will meet them again in mid winter.

The sky at 9 p.m. on May 15 from 40 degrees N latitude

The sky at 9 p.m. on May 15 from 40 degrees N latitude. Click to open in a new page.

The stars of the “Big Dipper” are the easiest to find this time of year, and they will help you find many other spring constellations.  To find the Dipper, just look up in the hours of early evening as darkness falls, and there it is, spanning as much sky as your outstretched hand held at arm’s length.  The Dipper itself is not a constellation, but is rather part of the larger constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

The two front stars of the bowl of the Dipper are known as the “Pointers” because they point northward to the North Star, Polaris (see image below). This star is less than a degree from the north celestial pole, so when you face Polaris, you are facing north.  Polaris is the tip of the tail of the constellation Ursa Minor (also known as the Little Dipper).  Follow the “Pointers” in the other direction to find the bright white star Regulus in the constellation Leo, the Lion.  The mane and head of this large constellation look like a large “reverse question mark” about as large as your fist held at arm’s length.  The body and legs of the Lion lie east of the head.

Stay with the Dipper and follow the arc of its curved handle away from the “bowl” to the brilliant yellow-orange star Arcturus.  Remember it this way: “Follow the arc to Arcturus”.  This star is the brightest in the kite-shaped constellation Bootes, the Herdsman.  Look just northeast of Arcturus to find the unmistakable semi-circle of Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown.

The Big Dipper points the way to the north star Polaris, the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo, and the bright stars Arcturus and Spica

The Big Dipper points the way to the north star Polaris, the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo, and the bright stars Arcturus and Spica

Now keep following the arc from the handle of the Big Dipper through Arcturus to a bright icy-white star well above the southern horizon in mid-evening in spring.  This is the star Spica (“SPEE-ka”) in the constellation Virgo.

In the northern spring sky at this time of year you are looking out of the plane of the Milky Way galaxy into the dark, starless space between galaxies.  You only see a few bright foreground stars in this part of the sky.  With a telescope (and some practice), you can see hundreds of distant galaxies in this region of the sky, especially the galaxies of the Virgo galaxy cluster, which lies just southeast of the star Denebola in Leo, and under the handle of the Dipper in Canes Venatici.