When you wish upon a star!

You can see many wonderful things in the night sky, if you can find a place where it is dark and clear. You might be able to see the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon like a luminous cloud, or maybe even catch a meteorite flaming to earth out of the corner of your eye.  Each season has a key to help you find the constellations, and summer is no exception.  The summer night sky is full of bright stars, the nearest planets, and – of course – the Moon.   Here are some major summer constellations you will be sure to see on a dark and clear night:

The Big Dipper circles close around the north pole, which means you can actually see it year-round.  Look for a constellation with seven stars in it. Often, it’s easiest to begin by searching for the “handle” of the Big Dipper. The handle has three stars that form an angle. The other four stars form the bowl portion of the dipper.  Once you find the Big Dipper, you can easily find the north star. Following the two stars at the end of the bowl in a straight line for approximately 30 degrees, or three fists held at arms’ length, you end up with the Little Dipper and the north star. Polaris, the north star, is the star closest to true north. For this reason, it has long been used for navigation.

Big Dipper (and little dipper)
earthsky.org

The key to summer is the Summer Triangle, made up of the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair. This is easily visible overhead during the summer. The three stars are the brightest in the sky and make a really big triangle.

Summer Triangle
earthsky.org
There are even more constellations surrounding the stars that make up the summer triangle. It’s easiest to start with finding Deneb.  Deneb is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, the swan.  Cygnus’s stars make a big cross in the sky. For this reason, it is sometimes called the Northern Cross. The longest part of the cross points into the center of the summer triangle, this part represents the swan’s long neck.  The two wings of the swan spread out to each side, and in the opposite direction to the neck is a very short tail.  If you can see the Milky Way, you will see that Cygnus looks like it is flying along the stream of the Milky Way.

Cygnus
earthsky.org

After finding Cygnus, the bright star in the summer triangle that is further north or at about the same distance north is Vega. Vega is in the constellation Lyra, the lyre. Lyra is fairly faint except for Vega, but you should be able to make out an arc above Vega.  This is where the strings for the lyre would be attached.

Lyra
earthsky.org

Now there is only one more star in the summer triangle, Altair. Altair is the head of Aquila, the eagle. Aquila’s body swoops out in the somewhat the same direction as Cygnus’s neck, and you can pick two wings out of the nearby stars.

Aquila
earthsky.org

The summer night sky is a canvas of interesting stories, images, and wonder.  Each constellation has origins dating back to ancient civilizations.  Visit your local library to find books about these stories and more information about the endless possibilities of outer space.  So on a warm summer evening, take your family and friends outside, lay out a blanket, bring yummy snacks, and let your imagination go wild!

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