Spring Sky Viewing Guide (Northern Hemisphere)

Springtime in the Northern Hemisphere brings many changes. To the delight of many, the weather gets warmer, days grow longer, flowers begin to bloom, many (but not all) “spring forward” their clocks, and animals awaken from hibernation while their new offspring cautiously venture outside to explore. With the harshest days of winter now in the rearview mirror, life begins to rejuvenate on Earth.

For stargazers, the new season also bring changes in the night sky. As the popular winter constellations such as Auriga, Taurus, Orion, Canis Major, and Gemini progress towards the west for one last good showing until next winter, new spring constellations take their place front and center in the best part of the night sky.

If you’re just getting started with your new telescope or binoculars, this guide will help to familiarize yourself with some of these popular springtime constellations. We will also highlight some of the coolest observable celestial targets near or within these constellations–including galaxies, star clusters, and double stars. Springtime is known as “Galaxy Season” as galaxies are plentiful, especially those that lie in the Virgo Cluster. However, because galaxies tend to be fainter objects, viewing from darker skies will be all the more rewarding. So put on your jacket, dress in layers as it can still be a bit chilly during the night, and let’s familiarize ourselves with the best of what the spring sky has to offer.   

 

 

Popular Springtime Constellations and Asterisms

 

In ancient times, our ancestors looked towards the heavens and noticed that with every season, new groupings of stars would appear in the sky. The predictable cycle of observable constellations repeated year after year as Earth continued on its orbit around the Sun. Using their vivid imaginations, stargazers envisioned these groupings as patterns that resembled mythological characters, animals, and other objects for which they were named.

The most popular springtime constellations and asterisms can be seen in the night sky from about late March to late June. Although there are about fifteen springtime constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere, seven prominent constellations stand out and are generally associated with springtime. These include: Ursa Major, Boötes, Cancer, Leo, Coma Berenices, Virgo, and Hydra.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, was catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. This circumpolar constellation is one of the best-known and most recognizable constellations in the sky. Native Americans imagined the stars outlining a huge bear, while its three rear stars resembled a tail, or three cubs, or even three hunters in pursuit of the bear. Ursa Major is most famously known for its Big Dipper asterism, formed by its seven brightest stars that form a bowl and handle.

In Spring, Ursa Major is located high in the sky and is favorably placed, like the old saying, “Spring up and Fall down.”

Boötes

Boötes, the Herdsman, was first catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. It’s easy to find by following the curved handle of the Big Dipper asterism to the fourth brightest star in the night sky, orange colored Arcturus. Its torso appears like a diamond shaped “kite.” Boötes is traditionally depicted as a herdsman holding two hunting dogs on a leash while holding on to a club in his other hand. He is also shown in drawings holding a cane and sickle. Today, Boötes is known to have stars within its boundary containing a significant number of exoplanets.


Cancer

Cancer, the celestial crab, is one of the thirteen constellation of the zodiac and is located on the ecliptic plane. Because of this, from time to time, a bright planet can be seen moving through the constellation. Cancer is bordered by the winter constellation Gemini to the west, Leo to the east, and Hydra to the south. Although it is faint, it is rich in star clusters. In Greek mythology, Cancer represents the crab who attacked Hercules in a duel with the water snake, Hydra. Cancer is a subtle constellation, and its stars appear as an upside down “Y.”

Leo

Leo, the Lion, is one of the best-known constellations of the zodiac. Leo represents the lion and is usually associated with the vicious and unstoppable Nemean lion in Greek mythology.  Leo was among the first constellations of the zodiac that actually resembles what it should look like—a lion. Its head is represented by a sickle, or a backwards question mark, while the line of stars makes up the lion’s body. The blue-white first magnitude star, Regulus, marks the base of the sickle or the front paws of the lion. Use your imagination! Leo is located between the constellations Cancer in the west and Virgo in the east, making it easy to spot in the springtime night sky. 19 stars within the constellation are known to host exoplanets.

Coma Berenices

Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair, is named after Queen Berenice II of Egypt. This constellation is found between Boötes in the east and Leo in the west and is home to the North Galactic Pole. To the naked eye in a dark sky site, Coma Berenices appears like a hazy patch of light in sky. Inside are a number of notable deep space objects including several Messier galaxies and a globular cluster. Two stars within the constellation are known to have exoplanets. By manually pointing your telescope and panning around in this area, you will surely stumble across a number of deep-sky objects to explore on your own.

Virgo

Virgo, the Maiden of Spring or Virgin in Latin, is one of the thirteen constellations of the zodiac and second largest constellation in the night sky next to Hydra. Located where the ecliptic meets the celestial equator, Virgo can be found between Leo to the west, and Libra in the east. Virgo is depicted with having angel wings and holding on to wheat in her right hand. She is also associated with the Greek goddess of justice, Dike. This is fitting as Virgo is positioned next to Libra, the constellation representing the scales of justice. Virgo begins as a ‘Y’ shape line of stars to blue-white first magnitude star, Spica. A line of three stars extends out from Spica forming her torso while another three line of stars just to the north forms her leg. Virgo is rich with known exoplanets and many Messier objects.

Hydra

Hydra, the Water Snake or Sea Serpent, is the largest constellation in the sky. Its shape resembles a slithering snake featured in Greek myths. Its head can be found just south of Cancer while its tail is located near Libra. Hydra crosses the celestial equator with parts of its body in the northern and in the southern sky. Although Hydra is the biggest constellation, it only has one bright star, Alphard. A cluster of five stars make up its head. The rest of the stars are fainter and more of a challenge to see.

The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper is often mistaken for a constellation, but it is actually one of the most easily recognizable asterisms in the Northern Hemisphere sky. Its stars indeed resemble a bowl complete with a handle. The seven stars that make up the Big Dipper are part of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The Big Dipper is circumpolar, which means it rotates around the North Star, Polaris, due to the Earth’s rotation. Although it can be found in different parts of the northern sky throughout the year, springtime is when the Big Dipper is highest up in the sky during the evening, while in fall and winter months it is closer to the northern horizon during the evenings. The Big Dipper is significant because its bowl, marked by the stars Dubhe and Merak, points the way to the pole star, Polaris, in the constellation Ursa Minor, also known as the Little Dipper or Little Bear.

Spring Triangle

The Spring Triangle asterism visible in the Spring night sky, is not an official constellation but is an outline formed by three bright stars from three prominent spring constellations: Regulus in Leo, Arcturus in Boötes, and Spica in Virgo. Use your imagination and connect the stars to see this cool springtime narrow triangle of bright stars. No binocular or telescope needed.

 

Top Springtime Celestial Objects

Now that we have identified some of the well-known springtime constellations and asterisms, let’s take a look at several of the most popular observable springtime celestial objects visible in most small to mid-aperture telescopes from a modest 60mm up to 8” in aperture. Springtime is galaxy season, and there are several notable galaxies as well as open and globular star clusters, and double stars to observe. Unfortunately, we cannot cover them all in this guide, but this will provide a good starting point.

Mizar

The star in the middle of the Big Dipper's handle is actually a naked-eye double star, Mizar and Alcor. Both can be seen with the unaided eye from suburban skies and is a good vision test. Mizar is a second magnitude star, while Alcor is a fourth magnitude star. Both are quite noticeable in a pair of binoculars. However, when viewed through a telescope, Mizar is itself a double star named Mizar A and its fainter companion, Mizar B. Both are white in color.

Bode’s Galaxy & Cigar Galaxy (Messier 81 and 82)

Bode’s Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy, M81 and M82 respectively, are two well-known galaxies located near each other in Ursa Major. Both are favorably placed during the spring and can be seen in the same field of view in most telescopes. M81 is a large spiral galaxy with two distinct spiral arms that can be seen above and below its core. With an apparent magnitude of 6.94, it can be easily seen in a telescope or binoculars on moonless nights from suburban areas. Nearby, the Cigar Galaxy, M82, can be found. It is an edge-on starburst galaxy which has a unique cigar shape due to interactions with neighboring galaxy M81. With an apparent magnitude of 8.41, it is also a favorable target for binoculars and small telescopes from suburban areas on moonless nights. From a dark sky site, both galaxies can be observed in a pair of 15x70 binoculars and will appear as ghostly dim-light structures in small telescopes. M81 and M82 can be easily located just by drawing an imaginary line from the stars Phecda (Gamma Ursae Majoris) to Dubhe in the bowl of the Big Dipper and extending the line at the same length beyond the bowl.

Globular Star Cluster (Messier 3)

Messier 3 was first seen by Charles Messier in 1764 and entered in his famous catalog of deep-sky objects. M3 is a bright globular cluster located in the constellation Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, near Boötes, the Herdsman. M3 is well placed in the sky in spring and is one of the brightest and largest globular clusters in the night sky. With an apparent magnitude of 6.2 and containing approximately half a million stars, M3 is a very popular target for backyard observers and can be spotted as a fuzzy star in a good pair of binoculars. When observed through a 4-inch or larger telescope, parts of the cluster will begin to resolve into individual stars. However, with any deep-sky object, the best views will be seen far away from city lights.  

Beehive Cluster (Messier 44)

The Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe or M44, is one of the most famous open star clusters of spring. With with an apparent magnitude of 3.7, it can be seen with the naked eye as a hazy patch of light from dark skies. This open cluster is best seen in binoculars and in small telescopes, making it an ideal target for backyard observers. Use low power to frame the cluster and gradually increase magnification to reveal a swarm of stars.

On an interesting side note, in 2012, scientists discovered two exoplanets orbiting two separate stars–pr 0201 b, and pr0211 b in the Beehive Cluster. These were the first exoplanets discovered orbiting Sun-like stars inside a star cluster. Although your telescope will not be able to reveal them, it’s fascinating just to know they are there.

Algieba

Also known as Gamma Leonis, Algieba is a fine double star located in the sickle of Leo. It was discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1782, who, in the prior year, discovered the planet Uranus. Algieba comes from the Arabic Al Jabbah (The Lion’s Mane). Algieba is comprised of two orange-red and yellow stars of magnitudes 2.2 and 3.5. The pair can be resolved in small-aperture telescopes with medium to high power in steady seeing conditions. It is a fine target for backyard telescopes.

Leo Triplet (Messier 65, 66 and NGC 3628)

This famous spring galaxy group known as the Leo Triplet consists of spiral galaxies M65, M66 and the Hamburger galaxy NGC 3628. The triplet is located near the lion’s rear leg. With an apparent magnitude of 10.3, 8.9, and 10.2 respectively, all three galaxies may be seen in the same field of view–even in smaller aperture telescopes from a dark sky site. But doing so will be challenging. Of course, the larger a telescope’s aperture, the brighter the galaxies will appear.

The Hamburger Galaxy can be found only half a degree to the north of galaxies M65 and M66. Their galactic disks are tilted at different angles, giving each a unique view. The Hamburger Galaxy appears edge-on, while M65 and M66 are slightly tilted to reveal their spiral arms.

Black Eye Galaxy (Messier 64)

The Black Eye Galaxy, also known as Messier 64, is located in the constellation Coma Berenices and is sometimes referred to as the Evil Eye Galaxy. Discovered by English astronomer Edward Pigott in March 1779, it has a spectacular dark band of dust on its disk, giving it an irregular shape with uneven brightness and texture. This dark band resembles a “black eye,” giving way to its nickname. With an apparent magnitude of 9.36, M64 is a favorite target for backyard stargazers as its bright core can be seen in small aperture telescopes in areas of less light pollution.

Galaxy (Messier 49)

Messier 49 is an elliptical galaxy associated with the Virgo Galaxy Cluster and is a popular observing target because it is the brightest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. M49 has an apparent magnitude of 9.4 and is viewable as a fuzzy patch of light in skies with less light pollution in a good pair of binoculars. Most backyard telescopes will easily reveal the galaxy’s core, but don’t expect to see any resolved stars–even in large aperture telescopes. Astronomers believe M49 may be five times as large as the Milky Way Galaxy we live in.

Sombrero Galaxy (Messier 104)

Messier 104, also known as the famous Sombrero Galaxy, a magnificent edge-on spiral galaxy located in the constellation Virgo. It has a bright nucleus and an unusually large central bulge with a prominent dark dust lane, giving it the appearance of a Mexican hat. The Sombrero Galaxy is located near the southern boundary of Virgo and has an apparent magnitude of 8.98. The galaxy is visible in a good pair of binoculars and backyard telescopes away from light pollution, but a telescope with at least 8” in aperture will be required to distinguish the bulge from the disk.


 

Helpful Observing Hints

 

  • Tip #1: Use an Astronomy App or Star Chart

Using a detailed star map is a great way of learning where to locate these celestial wonders or any other celestial objects anytime of the year. It may be an old fashion learning tool, but it just works. The most modern and informative tools today can be found in astronomy apps such as Celestron’s SkyPortal mobile app. This full featured planetarium app is included with the purchase of any Celestron telescope, available from the Apple App Store or Google Play. SkyPortal instantly provides new telescope owners with a wealth of information at their fingertips, including audio and written descriptions about various objects. It also provides its celestial coordinates, a real-time sky map, rise and set times, physical and orbital parameters.

  • Tip #2: Seeing Conditions

Steady seeing conditions are critical while observing objects such as planets, the Moon, or double stars, although deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies are less affected by poor seeing conditions. Avoid nights of bad seeing when our atmosphere is turbulent, and your targets appear like shimmering blobs in your telescope’s eyepiece. Start with low magnification and work your way up if the views remain steady. During a night of good seeing, you will be amazed how sharp and detailed objects can appear.

  • Tip #3: Telescope Cooldown

Cool your telescope down! Make sure you bring your telescope outside about an hour or so before you plan to observe to cool it to ambient temperature. It is important for the telescope to reach thermal equilibrium with the outside air temperature to avoid distorted views. Telescopes with large mirrors and lenses may take longer to properly cool down for the best views.

  • Tip #4: Collimation

Collimate, collimate, collimate! If you own a Newtonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, make sure your telescope’s optics are collimated. It can make a difference when it comes to discerning fine detail. If the optics are slightly out of alignment, you may be cheating yourself out of seeing the clearest and sharpest details. Make it a habit to check collimation and adjust as needed once your telescope is cooled down. Most refractor telescopes generally do not need to be collimated.

  • Tip #5: Dress Warmly

Springtime offers us amazing views of intergalactic space with an abundance of cosmic jewels to view, so the warmer temperatures should be motivating enough to let us go outside to use our binoculars or telescopes. Just make sure to dress warmly and in layers in case you need to adjust your clothing as temperatures may change as the night goes on. If you have a beanie and scarf, wear them to keep your head, ears, and neck warm. Gloves are useful too, but they can make things difficult such as holding on or changing eyepieces. Wear double socks and insulated boots to keep your feet warm, and if you have hand and foot warmers, they can make a world of difference in keeping warm.  

 

Celestron offers a variety of outdoor electronics, including multipurpose devices that can keep your hands warm and your smartphone charged up. You can browse our Elements products here.

 

If you own a Schmidt-Cassegrain or EdgeHD telescope, make sure you use a dew shield to help protect your telescope’s front corrector plate and help prolong the effects of dew. You can browse our Dew Prevention products here.

 

You can learn about the night skies of the Northern Hemisphere with Celestron Sky Maps! This classic collection of seasonal star charts with a glow-in-the-dark luminous star finder, has been around for years. It continues to be popular with beginning stargazers as well as seasoned amateur astronomers because it provides everything you need to find constellations quickly. You can see it here.

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

Springtime offers you and your family a great opportunity to view many new celestial targets as they come into view. As temperatures begin to warm, it’s easier to venture outside to discover what the night sky has to offer–safely, of course. With many of us so eager to get outside again, telescope observing is a great way to enrich your natural curiosity of our magnificent Universe.

Don’t forget to also explore the Moon, which is visible every month and any of the brighter planets when they are visible. If you have the opportunity to observe from darker skies, by all means do it! You will be amazed at what a small aperture, backyard telescope can reveal when conditions are just right.

Clear skies and happy observing!