Learning the Sky: A Family Activity

by Rod Kennedy

There is something magical about summer skies. After the heat of the day, the sun slowly slips below the horizon and the air cools. The sky slowly darkens and the stars appear one by one.  Summer stargazing is fun, relaxing and very much a family activity.  As “grown-ups” we tend to be the people our kids ask about the sky.  Everything from “what star is that” to “where is the constellation Orion?” So it is in our interest to have a good idea where the constellations, and the bright stars in them, are located.

The easiest way to begin is by looking north. High in the northern sky is the Big Dipper.  Most everyone can recognize the Big Dipper but it is surprising how many people confuse the Big Dipper with the Little Dipper.  An easy way to remember the difference is that the Big Dipper looks more like a sauce pan you would use on the stove than a water dipper and all 7 stars are fairly bright. The Little Dipper looks like a soup ladle and has only 3 bright stars. In addition, in the summer the Big Dipper’s bowl points down toward the northern horizon, passing through Polaris along the way.

Looking west early in June we will still be able to see the stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini but by the end of the month they will be lost in the glare of the sun. Higher in the sky we find the bright star Regulus in Leo the Lion. Regulus is the bright star at the end of the backward question mark known as the Sickle.

Returning to the Big Dipper and following in an arc we find the bright orange star Arcturus in Boötes. Continuing along that line we find Spica in Virgo the Maiden.  If we look 1/4 of the wayalong a line from Spica to Regulus we find a cream colored light that is not a star. This is actually the planet Saturn.

Low on the southern horizon is the red-orange star Antares in Scorpius the Scorpion.  Scorpiusis one of the rare constellations, along with Leo, that actually looks like the animal it issupposed to depict. However, following behind the scorpion is a constellation that does not look like what it is supposed to. Sagittarius is supposed to represent a mythical centaur, a creature that is half man half horse. However, the brightest stars of Sagittarius make it look more like a teapot than a centaur.  Sagittarius isn’t visible above the horizon in June until almost midnight so it probably is not a good constellation to present to kids.

Looking East are the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle.  The Summer Triangle, like the Sickle and the Big Dipper is not a constellation but an asterism; an easy to recognize group of stars that is part of one or more larger constellations. The three bright stars of the Summer Triangle are Vega (brightest and highest in the sky), Deneb (least bright but next highest) and Altair (lowest in the sky). These three stars are the brightest stars in the constellations Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila and are quite unmistakeable in the sky.

Pointing out stars and constellations to kids can be a great way to spend quality outdoor time.  It not only helps kids but it helps us as “grown-ups” learn the sky as well. Don’t worry aboutjumping into a telescope or trying to look at deep sky objects. Get to know the sky together and enjoy the summer evenings while doing it.

June 2011 Sky Chart

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