The Skies of Spring

© 1995 by Robert C. Moler

The early dark evenings of winter have been swept away rapidly with the switch to daylight savings time, plus the relentless push of the sun northward. When the skies finally clear up, the sun stays out too late for school groups to enjoy trips to the observatory on school nights. However the spring sky is worth the wait.

The spring sky is a great contrast to that of that of winter setting in the west and that of summer waiting in the wings to the east. The Milky Way is absent from the spring sky. Only the circumpolar bit of the milky band, low in the north, running through Cassiopeia is theoretically visible, though it hugs the horizon.

Crowning the spring sky is the Big Dipper, its seven stars hold forth overhead, pointing out the other inhabitants of the spring sky. The Big Dipper, I have found to my dismay, is known to most folks by reputation only. So starting the exploration of the spring sky from the Big Dipper, may be starting from an unknown point. The Big Dipper is overhead in its least dipper like position. Anyway start by looking up at those seven bright stars. The Big Dipper is purely a North American invention. Those same seven stars make a wagon, plow, cleaver or saucepan for other peoples. Officially the Big Dipper is the rump and questionably long tail of Ursa Major, the great bear. The bear is not hard to spot in dark skies.

The most famous star that's pointed to by the Big Dipper isn't a spring star at all, but Polaris, the North Star, nearly over the earth's north pole. A position that causes it to seemly stand still in the northern sky. Our Star and Planet Chart below shows the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper pointing to Polaris, which is in the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper or tip of the tail of Ursa Minor the little bear.

The handle of the Big Dipper points to the brightest spring star Arcturus. Remember to follow the arc of the handle to Arcturus. This orangish first magnitude star is located at the base of a kite shaped constellation of Bootes the herdsman. He is really chasing the Great Bear around the pole.

Back to the 'Arc to Arcturus'. After reaching Arcturus, straighten the arc to a straight spike to find the bright bluish white first magnitude star Spica in Virgo the maiden. Virgo is a large constellation of a reclining woman holding a stalk of wheat. Spica is the head of that spike of wheat. And as such ruled over the harvest. Virgo is one of the constellations of the Zodiac, against which the sun, moon and planets move. To astronomers Virgo is the home of the Virgo Cluster. It is no mere cluster of stars, but a cluster of thousands of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, and within reach of modest amateur telescopes.

Another Zodiacal constellation can be found by drilling a hole in the bowl of the Big Dipper and letting the water leak out. It will fall on the back of Leo the lion. Leo is Latin for lion, so Leo the lion is a bit redundant. It's head and mane is a backward question mark of stars with the bright star Regulus, the dimmest of the first magnitude stars, as the dot at the bottom. This figure is also called the Sickle. Behind the sickle is Leo's behind, a triangle of stars that are his haunches. The end star of that triangle is Denebola, the lion's tail. Since there are a lot of animals in the sky, there are also a lot of tails, and more than a couple of stars with Deneb as part of their names. The constellation Cygnus comes immediately to mind, but there are others.

These are just the brighter and easiest to find of the spring constellations. Also check out Corvus the crow, Crater the cup, Hydra the water snake, Coma Berenices or Berenice's hair, and Corona Borealis, the northern crown. Constellation and mythology books will relate the wonderful stories about these constellations.

Then there are the borderline spring-summer constellations of Hercules and Libra the scales.

Constellation and Star Quiz

Get your astronomy books out

  1. How many lions are among the constellations?
  2. How may cats of all kinds are among the constellations? Name them.
  3. How many dogs and other members of the canine family are there in the constellations? Name them.
  4. How many stars have Deneb as part of their name? And what are they?
  5. Which first magnitude stars can be occulted by the moon? (hint: two are mentioned in the article above)

Answers here

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Uploaded: 07/14/96