The Ultimate Guide to Observing the Summer Sky (Northern Hemisphere)

At last! Summer is here! For many, summertime means freedom and fun. Days are longer, temperatures heat up, traditional schools close, and parents gather their brood to embark on a much-deserved family vacation. It’s also a fabulous time to frolic at the beach with friends, enjoy a delicious BBQ picnic at the park, light fireworks to celebrate our nation’s Independence Day, or spend a lazy sunny afternoon at the ballpark snacking on peanuts, hot dogs, and Cracker Jack.

For sky watchers, summer brings shorter nights, but it makes up for it by delivering a plethora of celestial delights including many easy-to-recognize constellations and favorite deep-sky objects. The annual Perseid meteor shower always puts on a fine display during warm August nights–especially when it falls on a moonless night. The Milky Way is most beautiful this time of year, arching its way across the sky from horizon to horizon like a hazy river of infinite stars!

If you’re just getting started with your new telescope or binoculars, this guide will help you familiarize yourself with many popular summertime constellations. We will also highlight some of the coolest observable celestial targets near or within these summer constellations–including asterisms, double stars, emission and planetary nebulae, and star clusters. So, grab your bug spray (preferably the larger size) and let’s head outside to discover what the summer sky has to offer.  

 

Popular Summertime Constellations and Asterisms

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

Each June, we bid adieu to the last remaining winter constellations as Gemini’s ‘head’ stars Pollux and Castor sink into the western horizon with Cancer the crab following not too far behind. While it’s sad to say goodbye to these familiar old constellation figures until next winter, many new and exciting constellations appear to take their place.

The most popular summertime constellations and asterisms can be seen from about late June to about late September in the Northern Hemisphere. Although there are about 17 summertime constellations visible, there are more than 10 prominent constellations, and several asterisms that stand out as icons of the summer night sky. They are easy to find if you know where to look–especially for beginning stargazers. Some of these include:

The Summer Triangle is not an official constellation, but it is a noticeable asterism visible in the summer night sky. It is outlined by three prominent stars: Deneb in Cygnus, Vega in Lyra, and Altair in Aquila. Use your imagination and connect the three bright stars to see this cool summer triangle. No binocular or telescope needed!

Aquila, translated from Greek into “Eagle of Zeus,” named after Aetos Dios, the eagle that carried the thunderbolts of the god, Zeus. Aquila is located on the celestial equator and is visible from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during summer. It is home to one of the prominent stars in the Summer Triangle asterism, Altair.

Corona Borealis is one of the 48 constellations listed by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century, and its name translates to “Northern Crown” in Latin. It is a small constellation but is easily recognizable in darker skies with a shape resembling a “C” depending on its orientation. Corona Borealis is located between the constellations Boötes and Hercules.
Cygnus the beautiful Swan can be seen “flying” through the stars of the Milky Way high above on summer nights. Its name means “swan” in Latin. Cygnus also contains the asterism the Northern Cross, which appears exactly like its name. At the top of the cross or tail-end of Cygnus is Deneb, a magnitude 1.25 blue-white supergiant star. Deneb joins Altair and Vega to comprise the famous asterism the Summer Triangle.

Delphinus means “dolphin” in Latin. According to Greek mythology, the sea god, Poseidon, sent a dolphin to find Amphitrite, the Nereid he wanted to marry. Delphinus is a small constellation and was catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the second century. The constellation is easily recognizable by its diamond-shaped pattern formed by its brightest stars, known as Job’s Coffin, which outlines the body of the dolphin. It is home to several deep sky objects such as globular clusters NGC 6934 and NGC 7006.

Hercules is a prominent summertime figure and is the fifth largest constellation in the sky. The Greeks called him Heracles, but the Romans changed his name to Hercules. The constellation lies upside down just south of Draco’s head and is easier to spot in darker skies than from the city since it has many dim stars.  A “keystone” of four third and fourth magnitude stars mark Hercules’ torso. On the western edge, you’ll find the famous globular cluster, Messier 13.

A medium-sized constellation, Libra ranks 29th in size among the 88 constellations in the night sky. It is one of the thirteen constellations of the zodiac and was first catalogued by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Libra translates to “the weighing scales” in Latin. Libra is usually shown as the scales held by the Greek goddess of justice, Dike or Astraea. In modern times, Libra is a universal symbol of balance, harmony, and justice. Libra contains three stars with known exoplanets. The meteor shower Delta Librids is associated with Libra.
Lyra resembles an ancient stringed musical instrument similar to a harp. It is one of the 48 constellations catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the second century. Look for it near Cygnus to the west and Hercules to the east. Its bright star, Vega, is the fifth brightest star in the sky at magnitude 0.03 and is one of the three bright stars that form the Summer Triangle asterism. The annual Lyrids meteor shower radiates from Lyra each April. Lyra is easy to find due to its close proximity to Cygnus and the unmistakable bright star Vega.

Sagitta, which means arrow in Latin, is one of the smaller and dimmer constellations in the sky that was first catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Sagitta consists of four stars in the shape of an arrow located north of the bright star, Altair. It contains a couple of notable deep sky objects including the loose but stunning globular cluster Messier 71 (NGC 6838).
Sagittarius, the archer, is depicted as a centaur—half man, half horse—poised to shoot with his bow and arrow. It is one of the most popular constellations of the zodiac and lies just south of the ecliptic. It is easily recognizable due to its brightest stars, which form the “teapot.” Because Sagittarius lies in the Milky Way and is in the same direction as the Galactic Center, it contains a variety of well-known deep sky objects including dwarf galaxies, nebulae, star clouds, globular and open star clusters.

One of the most prominent zodiac constellations in the night sky, Scorpius is one of the few constellations that unmistakably resembles its namesake, a scorpion. You’ll be able to discern its J-shaped body, complete with a stinger that’s ready to kill its prey in the murky river of stars in the Milky Way. In Greek mythology, a scorpion was sent to kill Orion, and in the aftermath, the two constellations were placed on opposite ends of the sky, so they could never be seen together at the same time. When Orion sets in the western sky, Scorpius rises in the east and vice versa. Because Scorpius is located in the same direction as the Galactic Center of the Milky Way, it also contains several notable deep sky objects including many star clusters. The red super giant star Antares marks the heart of the scorpion, and its reddish color is striking to the naked eye and through a telescope. The stars Shaula and Lesath make up the scorpion’s stinger.

In Latin, Vulpecula translates into “the little fox.” First introduced by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, it lies within the Summer Triangle and consists of five stars no brighter than fourth magnitude. Vulpecula is home to the famous planetary Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27), which was the first planetary nebula to be discovered by Charles Messier in 1764. Vulpecula is also home to The Coathanger, also known as Brocchi’s cluster (covered in more detail below).

The Coathanger or Brocchi’s cluster, is a tiny asterism whose pattern of stars appears just like its name—a coathanger! It’s named in honor after 1920s American amateur astronomer Dalmiro Brocchi, who drew detailed finder charts of stars in the American Association of Variable Star Observers program and included this asterism in great detail. Located in the constellation Vulpecula, the Coathanger is quite easy to make out in binoculars or through a low power, wide field telescope, especially in dark skies. To find it, draw an imaginary line from Vega to Altair. The Coathanger sits just above and to the right of the constellation Sagitta (inside the Summer Triangle).

 

 

Top Summertime Celestial Objects

Now that we have identified some of the well-known summer constellations and asterisms, let’s take a look at several of the most popular observable summertime celestial objects. All of these are visible in most small to mid-aperture telescopes, from a modest 60mm up to 8” in aperture. If you have access to binoculars, use them, too! If you are able to travel away from the city, your views improve dramatically in less light polluted skies. Summertime skies are rich in globular clusters, open star clusters, and notable emission nebulae, planetary nebulae, and double stars. Unfortunately, we cannot cover them all in this guide, but this will provide a good starting point for the most popular ones.

At the head of Cygnus is the little yellow and blue double star, Albireo—always a popular target during summer star parties. Some Southern California stargazers have dubbed Albireo the “UCLA Double Star.” With side-by-side yellow and blue stars, it reminds locals of the university’s colors. A small telescope or a high-powered binocular will split this colorful pair. Albireo was once thought to be a true binary star system, but there has never been any evidence of orbital motions between the two stars. Astronomers now believe the two stars making up Albireo are a visual double, not a true binary.

Look to the constellation Vulpecula for the beautiful and colorful Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27). This planetary nebula is a dying star that has ejected its shell of hot gases into space for nearly 50,000 years! With a visual magnitude of 7.5, it looks like two whitish hazy patches of light that resemble a dumbbell in a telescope from a dark sky site. In long exposure astroimages, the nebula appears bluish/greenish in its core with some red on its outskirts.

Also known as Messier 16, the Eagle Nebula is one of the most popular celestial targets in the summer skies for backyard stargazers. Located in the direction of Serpens the Serpent, it is one of the most famous celestial targets due to its appearance as a spread-out eagle, and because of its famous towering structures, the “Pillars of Creation.” This is an active star-forming region of gas and dust. The Eagle Nebula is a relatively young open star cluster with areas of dark nebulae that don’t shine any light themselves but can be seen because they block light from other sources. In 2017, the Hubble Space Telescope captured a stunning image of the Pillars of Creation that remains one of the most spectacularly detailed celestial images to this day.
Located in the constellation Lyra, Epsilon Lyrae is the famous “double-double” star. To the naked eye, it appears as a single star. Through binoculars, it resolves into two stars, Epsilon 1 and Epsilon 2. Through a telescope using high power in steady seeing conditions, each star resolves into two stars again for a total of four stars! Epsilon Lyrae is easy to find because of its nearness to the bright star Vega.

The crown jewel of the Northern Hemisphere’s globular clusters, the Hercules Cluster (Messier 13) contains roughly half a million stars and appears like a ball of “diamonds on black velvet” through an 8” aperture telescope in dark skies. To locate M13, look for the “keystone,” an uneven square of four third and fourth magnitude stars marking Hercules’ body. With an apparent magnitude of 5.8, it M13 is barely detectable with the naked eye from a dark sky site. Because Hercules’ path traverses high in the sky, Messier 13 is visible all night from May through July and part of the night in August and September. When you gaze at M13, keep in mind that the stars you see are believed to be 11 to 13 billion years old–almost the same age as the universe!

The Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8) gets its name from a dark, winding dust lane that runs through the nebula. It is a very large gas cloud (approximately 130 light years across) near the center of our Milky Way galaxy about three times the size of the full Moon. It’s bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from a dark sky location, but using a binocular or telescope provides astonishing views. A bright open cluster NGC 6530, comprised of young, hot, blue stars, lies within the nebula and is easily visible. M8 is classified as an emission nebula. Like its wintertime counterpart, the Orion Nebula, M8 is a star-forming region—a stellar nursery where young stars are being born.

Summer is, without a doubt, the best time to see the stunning Milky Way, the galaxy that includes our own Solar System. All you need is your unaided eyes or a pair of binoculars to take in the view. Although you cannot see the Milky Way from the city due to all the light pollution, make plans to head out to the desert, mountains, or take a ship far out to sea on a moonless night.  You’ll be rewarded with a view of millions of stars flowing like a river of milk across the sky. The Milky Way first appears running along the northeast horizon early in the evening, but as the night goes on, it rises higher until it reaches the zenith before heading back downwards as the night progresses. The galactic center and brightest part of the Milky Way lies in the direction of Sagittarius and Scorpius.

Back in 1994, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck Los Angeles, California during the pre-dawn hours, triggering a citywide blackout. Frightened residents went outside and discovered the city in darkness. Many residents noticed a strange, silvery cloud in the sky that looked sinister in nature. Some even dialed 911. That strange cloud turned out to be the Milky Way, which many residents of the light polluted metropolis had never seen before!
Also known as the Swan Nebula (Messier 17), the Omega Nebula shines at an apparent magnitude of 6.0 and is best seen in binoculars or a low power telescope. It’s located near another prominent object, the Eagle Nebula. Both nebulae are located near the center of our Milky Way galaxy, where many other bright star clusters and nebulae reside. Look for the teapot asterism in Sagittarius and draw an imaginary line from the bottom star Kaus Australis to Kaus Media. Then move up about 15 degrees to M17. Both M17 and M16 are highest in the sky in late August evenings.

The Ring Nebula (Messier M57) is a popular summertime celestial target for backyard astronomers—even those viewing from the city! M57 is a planetary nebula, a shell of gas released from a dying star. Located in the constellation Lyra with an apparent magnitude of 8.8, it is bright enough to be seen in small to medium sized telescopes. It appears like a small, ghostly smoke ring or a small gray donut floating in space. It is easy to find because it lies about halfway between the bottom two stars of the harp–Gamma (γ) and Beta (β) Lyrae. While observing the Ring Nebula, use averted vision to look slightly off to its side and the donut will begin to appear. Stare at it straight on and it will vanish! Rods, which are located away from our retina (the center of our eyes) are more sensitive faint light, so using averted vision will help you see the Ring’s structure.
Discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, the Trifid Nebula (Messier 20) is a star forming region located near the center of the Milky Way and just two degrees northwest of the Lagoon Nebula. Both objects are often imaged together in the same field of view. M20 has an apparent magnitude of 6.3 and appears as a fuzzy patch of light in binoculars. Its name means 'three-lobe.' The Trifid is easy to see in a telescope from a dark sky location. Some sports fans have noted that the three dark dust lanes resemble Nike’s “Air Jordan” logo when viewed from a certain angle.

The Wild Duck Cluster (Messier 11) is a compact open cluster containing about 3,000 hot, young stars that resembles a loosely packed globular cluster through a telescope. It’s named after some of its brighter stars, which form a triangle that resembles a flock of flying ducks. (Use your imagination!) M11 is located in the constellation Scutum near the northern edge of a rich Milky Way star cloud called the Scutum Cloud. It has an apparent magnitude of 6.3. It is a popular summertime object because the views never disappoint.

 

Other notable celestial events this summer

The beautiful ringed planet Saturn will reach opposition on August 2 and will be fully illuminated by the Sun, shining at magnitude +0.1. On this night, Saturn will be brighter than any other time of the year and visible all night long. This will be the best time to view and photograph the ringed planet and its moons. A small to medium aperture telescope will allow you to see its rings and several of its brightest moons. Throughout 2021, Saturn will be found within the boundaries of Capricornus the Sea Goat.

The Perseids is one of the most widely observed meteor showers every year due to its timing during the warm summer months in the Northern Hemisphere and its potential to produce up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1862. This year, the shower peaks on the night of August 12 and the morning of August 13. The waxing crescent moon will set early, leaving dark skies great for observing. The best views will be from a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Perseus but may appear anywhere in the sky.

The king of the planets, Jupiter, returns to the evening sky and reaches opposition on August 19. It will be fully illuminated by the Sun, shining at a brilliant magnitude -2.9. This will be the best time to view and photograph Jupiter and its moons. Throughout 2021, Jupiter will be located in Capricornus the Sea Goat. Look for its famous Great Red Spot, cloud bands, and its four Galilean moons.

 

Helpful Observing Hints

Tip #1: Use an Astronomy App or Star Chart Using a detailed star map is a great way to learn the positions of celestial objects anytime of the year. It may be an old fashioned 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 in layers

Summertime may feel like shorts and t-shirt weather for the most part, but it’s best to keep a light jacket handy just in case the temperature drops at night. Warm summer nights can bring mosquitoes and other four-, six-, and eight-legged creepy crawlers out of the woodwork, so it’s probably a good idea to cover up and apply bug spray, or else your evening of stargazing may turn out to be an unpleasant one.   

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

 

 

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 from the effects of dew. You can browse our Dew Prevention products.

 

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. 

 

 

Final Thoughts

Summertime offers you and your family many wonderful opportunities to try new hobbies and take part in fun and memorable activities such as stargazing. With many of us so eager to get outside again, telescope observing is a great way to enrich your family’s natural curiosity about our magnificent Universe. This summer will bring a variety of cool celestial objects to observe. And 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 take a road trip 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. Remember, half the fun comes after dark.

Clear skies and happy observing!