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Astronomy: Out with the Old Constellations, in with the New

5-27-11 Leo KKW
Constellation-Hop across the Sky Starting with Leo the Lion. Credit: Kelly Kizer Whitt

Depending on how bad the weather has been where you live, it may have been a while — a very long while — since you've been stargazing. From snow, rain, clouds, or temperatures just too chilly to enjoy the outdoors, the weather has kept a lot of people indoors over the past months. If the last time you remember looking up in the dark involved Orion rising in the east, then you may not recognize the stars once you head back out.

As May draws to a close and June begins, the constellations of spring are setting and those of summer are rising. In the early evening after it gets dark enough for the dimmer stars to appear, look to the southwest to find Leo the Lion setting. Leo is the one that looks like a backward question mark with a triangle behind it. To Leo’s left is Virgo. Virgo is notable right now for the bright point of Saturn that is hovering close to one of Virgo’s stars, Porrima. Virgo's brightest star, Spica, is to Saturn's lower left.

Virgo is the second largest constellation in the sky. The largest constellation is also visible in spring, lying just below Virgo. Hydra the Water Snake slithers above the horizon and below both Virgo and Leo. But between Virgo and Hydra, Crater the Cup and Corvus the Crow are two small constellations that sit on the Water Snake’s back.

Above Virgo and a little left is a bright star named Arcturus, part of the constellation Bootes, which looks a bit like a giant kite with legs. Looking left (southeast) of Virgo, we hit another Zodiac constellation, Libra the Scales. Libra is rather small and dark, making it hard to see, but the constellation to its left, rising above the horizon, is much easier to pick out. This is Scorpius (not Scorpio, that's an astrology term), with its front pinchers on the right and its tail curving down toward Earth. Depending on how late you are out, you may also see Sagittarius rising above the southeastern horizon with its distinctive teapot shape.

Finally, looking east, the summer constellations are rising mid-evening. Lyra, Cygnus, and Cepheus, the constellations home to the three stars that make up the Summer Triangle, are all above the horizon by the time the sky gets dark.

While those are not all the constellations visible at the moment, they are some of the more important ones. I didn't mention the constellations in the north, because they are the same all year. The north circumpolar constellations rotate around the north star and parts or all of them never set as seen from the northern hemisphere.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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