As the days get longer and the nights get warmer, the spring sky is more than your transitional sky between the bright winter stars and beautiful summer Milky Way. As we are looking more towards the outside of our galaxy, the spring sky has a lot of distant galaxies to spot.
Ursa Major & Ursa Minor
While it is a constellation that is always visible in the northern skies, During the spring months, Ursa Major, Latin for Great Bear, is highest in the sky, signifying a bear that is out grazing and hunting. While we easily identify the seven brightest stars that make up the Big Dipper, many don’t realize that that is not the whole constellation! The rest of the constellation actually looks like a bear, with a body, a head, and set of legs! While real life bears do not have a tail, just imagine that these two bears do, since the “handle” of the big dipper is supposed to be the bear’s tail. From a dark sky, you can see the entire constellation, but from a sky closer to cities, you can still see just the dipper section.
Ursa Minor, or the Little Bear, is also known as the Little Dipper. is overall not as bright, and from a city, you can only see two-three of the stars that make up the constellation. From a dark sky, however, you can make out the rest which definitely makes up its nickname. Polaris, currently the North Pole Star, sits at the tail of Ursa Minor. Many people get surprised to learn that the star itself is actually not “the brightest star in the sky,” as from a city sky it is almost hard to make out. However, because our North Pole is currently pointed within a degree of this star, it appears to always be fixed in the same position every night, thus it makes it easy to find true north for navigational purposes.
Another constellation that is visible mostly all year in northern skies, Draco slithers like a snake around Ursa Minor, and is at its best during the spring-early summer months. From west to east, the tail section straddles between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, with the head being near Hercules, Cygnus, and Lyra – constellations that mark the beginning of Summer.
Contains the bright orange-white star Arcturus, which is at the bottom of the constellation. Using the “arc” of the Big Dipper, you can trace a line with the saying “arc to Arcturus and find this star very easily.” As it is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, many people often mistake it for a planet. The shape of the constellation tends to look like a cosmic ice cream cone, but it is supposed to represent a herdsman, or plowman.
Cancer the Crab is not a bright constellation, it’s impossible to see from the cities because the main stars are all dimmer than Polaris. From a dark sky, the stars are visible but not as obvious as neighboring constellations Leo and Gemini. However, M 44 can be seen with the naked eye as a faint smudge in dark skies, and that is what I often use to find where Cancer is. It is best viewed in March.
Leo the lion is one of the few constellations that actually look like the character it’s supposed to represent, as from the brightest star, Regulus, you can trace a backwards question mark, known as “the sickle” and see it as the head of a lion, with the other main stars serving as the body. Regulus is often the first bright star you can see in the eastern sky during the winter months, thus it’s an indicator that Spring is approaching.
Virgo is large, and rather dim save for the bright star Spica, which you can use to find where Virgo is located. Using the same “arc to Arcturus” method you used before, you continue by “spiking to Spica,” and you can easily find Spica. The constellation is meant to represent a virgin woman, hence the name, and there are several ways to depict the large formation as such. Virgo is in the direction of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, and as such, this sector in the sky contains a ton of galaxies to find with your telescope. From northern latitudes, It is best to view this constellation in May.
Deep Sky Objects
You can’t really see the Milky Way during the spring months because the winter section is setting, and the summer section is just beginning to rise late in the spring months. Therefore we are looking out into intergalactic space, and the spring sky contains many galaxies to find in the sky. Here are some of the brightest, along with what constellations they are in. It’s HIGHLY recommended you observe from a dark location to catch these sights!
- Bodes Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy (M 81 & M 82) – Ursa Major. Pictured above – you can actually see both of them at the same time through a telescope!
- Pinwheel Galaxy (M 101) – Ursa Major
- Sombrero Galaxy (M 104) – Virgo
- Whirlpool Galaxy (M 51) – Ursa Major
- Leo Triplet (M65, M66, and NGC 3628) – Leo, pictured below – with a wide enough view you can see all three of them at once through a telescope!
There are perhaps thousands more you can find. Try pointing your telescope towards the Virgo Supercluster, and see how many “smudges” you can spot as you scan the area.
You can find this area west of Bootes. While the constellation itself is only a few stars that form a couple lines, the rest of the area is rich in stars and deep sky objects. From a dark site, you can see a beautiful open star cluster with the naked eye, especially high in the May sky.
M44 – Beehive Cluster (also known as Praesepe)
this cluster in Cancer can be seen as a fuzzy patch with the naked eye, and through a pair of binoculars can reveal a rich open cluster. It’s a good telescope target under light polluted skies!
M51 and M101 – Canes Venatici and Ursa Major
Located on opposite sides of the star Alkaid, the last star that forms the “handle” of the Big Dipper, you can see these beautiful spiral galaxies that appear “face-on” and allow you to see their spiral arms. While you need at least an 11″ or larger telescope to visually see the spiral arms, they CAN be glimpsed through an 8″ if your eyes are perfectly adapted under a Bortle 2 sky or darker. Long exposure brings them out!