Summer is almost here! We're only two weeks away from the solstice, and, here in Oregon, the days are growing steadily longer, warmer, and drier. But summer isn't all about the sun. At night, the birds sing past dusk, welcoming the summer stars. Bootes, and Lyra, and Aquila--all the iconic constellations rise high in the sky earlier each night. Even with light pollution from big cities like Portland, you can still find the brightest stars, up there in the summer sky.
The Summer Constellations: Getting to Know The Sky
In summer, the first constellation I look for is Bootes (which is apparently pronounced bow-oh-tees, but I'll always call it booties in my head). More specifically, I look for Arcturus, a bright, reddish star at the tip of it that is often mistaken for Mars. The shape of Bootes reminds me a bit of Orion; I think of it as the Orion of summer.
Corona Borealis means the northern crown, and the constellation looks like one--it's a half-circle of stars, and one of the few constellations where the shape is easy to pick out in the night sky. When Bootes is in the southwest, Corona Borealis is just to the left of it.
I look for Hercules straight up in the sky, at the zenith. I like to think of it quite simply as a giant square with arms.
Vega is the brightest star in the summer sky--it's the Sirius of summer, and the "star" of the constellation Lyra. When Bootes is in the southwest, Lyra can be found in the south, almost to the southeast. Just look for the brightest star in the sky, and there you have it--Vega. (Fun fact: in Carl Sagan's book Contact, the aliens came from a planet orbiting Vega!)
Just below Lyra, and slightly to the right, there will be another bright star. This is Altair, the "star" of Aquila. Aquila is supposed to be shaped like an eagle, but it really just looks like a cross, similar to our next constellation...
Cygnus, the swan, is also shaped like a cross, crowned by a bright star called Deneb. Cygnus lies southeast of Aquila and Lyra. Together, Cygnus, Aquila, and Lyra form what's known as the Summer Triangle; three of the most recognizable summer constellations, all of which are easy to spot thanks to Vega, Altair, and Deneb.
Scorpius is a little harder to see if you're in the city, since it often hides at the horizon until very early in the morning. But, when you're out somewhere with an open sky and little light pollution, Scorpius is easy to spot because it actually looks like its namesake, with its, scorpion-like curved tail.