Exploring the spring sky
The Big Dipper, our signpost in the sky, swings high overhead during the spring and lies near the center of the chart. This season of rejuvenation encourages us to move outdoors with the milder temperatures, and with the new season a new set of stars beckons us.
Follow the arc of stars outlining the handle of the Dipper away from the bowl and you will land on brilliant Arcturus. This orangish star dominates the spring sky in the kite-shaped constellation Boötes the Herdsman. Well to the west of Boötes lies Leo the Lion. You can find its brightest star, Regulus, by using the pointers of the Dipper in reverse. Regulus lies at the base of a group of stars shaped like a sickle or backward question mark, which represents the head of the lion.
Midway between Regulus and Pollux in Gemini, which is now sinking in the west, is the diminutive group Cancer the Crab. Centered in this group is a hazy patch of light that binoculars reveal as the Beehive star cluster (M44).
To the southeast of Leo lies the realm of the galaxies and the constellation Virgo the Maiden. Virgo's brightest star, Spica, shines at magnitude 1.0.
During springtime, the Milky Way lies level with the horizon, and it's easy to see that we are looking out of the plane of our galaxy. In the direction of Virgo, Leo, Coma Berenices, and Ursa Major lie thousands of galaxies whose light is unhindered by intervening dust in our own galaxy. However, all these galaxies are elusive to the untrained eye and require binoculars or a telescope to be seen.
Boötes lies on the eastern border of this galaxy haven. Midway between Arcturus and Vega, the bright "summer" star rising in the northeast, is a region where no star shines brighter than 2nd magnitude. A semicircle of stars represents Corona Borealis the Northern Crown, and adjacent to it is a large region that houses Hercules the Strongman, the fifth-biggest constellation in the sky. It's here we can find the northern sky's brightest globular star cluster, M13. A naked-eye object from a dark site, it looks spectacular when viewed through a telescope.
Returning to Ursa Major, check the second-to-last star in the Dipper's handle. Most people will see it as double, while binoculars show this easily. The pair is called Mizar and Alcor, and they lie just 0.2° apart. A telescope reveals Mizar itself to be a double. Its companion star shines at magnitude 4.0 and lies 14 arcseconds away.
Spring constellation audio tours