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Goodbye Orion, Hello Big Dipper: As Seasons Change New Constellations Come Out to Play

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John Flannery
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Flickr

This summer, the northern hemisphere sees some pretty spectacular astronomical events. The Perseid meteor showers will peak in mid August and about a week after that, parts of the United States will witness the first total solar eclipse since 1979. It’s also the first one visible from the Pacific ocean to the Atlantic since 1918.

But before the spectacular events of late summer, there are still many wonders to observe in the night sky. The summer brings new constellations and planets to the skies above the norther hemisphere, and astronomy contributor Jean Creighton has some advice on which ones to look for. 

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Credit Matti Ollikainen / Flickr
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The Big Dipper constellation.

The Big Dipper

"For some good portion of the year, the Big Dipper is very low on the northern horizon - tricky to spot sometimes and if you have a building or something, you might not even be able to see it at all," says Creighton. "But now it's way high, which means you get the North Star as always, but you also get two really bright stars."

Those "bright stars" are called: Arcturus and Spica. These stars will lead you to two other constellations, just made visible in the northern hemisphere. 

Boötis

One of the two bright stars of the Big Dipper, Arcturus, is also the brightest star in the constellation Boötis. The name of the constellation translates to "the cow herder," but Creighton thinks it's shape resembles something a bit different. 

"I say it looks like an ice cream cone, which seems to be very appropriate for summer time," she explains. "So if you imagine that Arcturus is at the tip of the cone, it has a cone and there's a blob of ice cream. So that would be Boötis. How that becomes a cow herder, I couldn't tell you."

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Credit Kees Scherer / Flickr
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The Virgo Cluster.

Virgo

The other bright star visible in the Big Dipper, Spica, will lead you to the Virgo constellation. "Spica is the brightest star in Virgo, who's supposed to be a young woman and I look for a squished box, or if you like to think of it in geometric terms, it looks like a trapezium," says Creighton. 

Jupiter

While Jupiter is not a constellation, it can trick people looking for Arcturus since it is by far the brightest object in that part of the night sky. Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and is easily visible using a "modest telescope," according to Creighton. 

"You should be able to see four little dots around Jupiter, and you can make one of the discoveries for yourself that Galileo made, that made him think, 'You know what? The earth can't be in the center of everything, because I have proof that there's something that's going around Jupiter and not the earth," she says. 

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Credit Thomas Bresson / Flickr
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The Northern Crown, also known as Corona Borealis.

The Northern Crown

"In the northeast we're going to be able to see the Northern Crown," says Creighton. 

She admits that the constellation is not one she thought much about until she started working at the Olson Planetarium. "When I work with audiences, I see that it's one of those things that people can find because it's highly symmetrical," she explains. "We're looking for the letter C and depending on where you're facing it might be upside down or inside out."

Gemini

"Just before it gets super dark, you'll still be able to find Gemini, the twins in the west," she says. "I like Gemini because the two top stars, they're bright enough [that] you can see them by the bus stop, under the lamp. Really, really bright." 

Although the constellation is largely not visible this time of year, Creighton says that because of its bright stars Gemini can still be seen in the sky around dusk. 

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.