Star Hopping the Summer Sky
Learning to identify the brightest stars, and using groups of stars to point you from one group to the next, is the easiest way to navigate the night sky. As the sun sets, the stars with the greatest magnitude, (brightest) are the first to appear overhead. The ‘star hopping’ suggested here is for the summer sky. Sky charts are also available for spring, fall, and winter; and there are many books that will help you to learn your way through the skies.
A few of the first stars to appear as night falls are in or near the constellation Cygnus the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross. Appearing almost directly overhead, the star Vega, in the constellation Lyra, is often the first star to be seen. Traveling north of Vega is the star Deneb, representing the tail of Cygnus.
Cygnus lies in the middle of what appears to be a streak of clouds running from north to south. In fact, this is one of the arms of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. As your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and because the sky at Cherry Springs is very dark, you see that this streak of cloud is actually millions of stars.
Note the small, diamond like shape of stars which will appear along the eastern border of the Milky Way and just slightly south of Cygnus. This is Delphinus, the Dolphin. Follow Deneb farther north until you see a group of stars in the shape of a “W” or “M.” This is the constellation Cassiopeia, the Queen, thought to be sitting in her “chair.”
Coming up on the western horizon will be Ursa Major, the Great Bear, commonly known as the Big Dipper. The two stars that make up the outside edge of the ‘dipper’ are the stars Merak (Mahr-ak) and Dubhe (Doo-bee), also called the “pointer stars.”
Draw an imaginary line from Merak to Dubhe, extend its length six times, and you will have reached Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is also the end star on the handle of Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper. Note that the Little Dipper looks like it is pouring something into the Big Dipper. Polaris is the only star in the sky that appears to be stationary. All other stars revolve around Polaris, because the Earth’s northern polar axis is pointed very close to it.
Certain constellations that lie close to Polaris are visible all night long and do not seem to rise and set like the other stars and are called circumpolar stars.
Going back to the Big Dipper, follow the arc that the stars in the handle seem to make until you get the next bright star. Arcturus is the bottom star in the constellation Boötes (Boh-oo-tes), the herdsman, but it looks more like a baseball bat or ice cream cone. Continue your arc past Arcturus to the next brightest star, Spica, in the Constellation Virgo, the Virgin. An easy way to remember this sequence is, “Arc to Arcturus then speed on to Spica.”