Finding your way around the sky can be confusing. The moon helps point to bright planets and stars, but sometimes you need more. That's where asterisms can help. They're bright, easily recognizable star patterns that aren't official constellations. Familiar examples include the Big Dipper, the Northern Cross and Orion's Belt. Asterisms provide a "footing" in the sky and lessen the frustration some skywatchers experience when learning the constellations.
Once you know the Dipper, you can extend its outline to the fainter stars that comprise Ursa Major the Great Bear of which the Dipper is the brightest part. Likewise, Orion's Belt serves as the home base for finding all of Orion as well as pointing to other bright stars such as Sirius and Aldebaran. In turn you can use those stars to expand your constellation-finding to Canis Major the Great Dog and Taurus the Bull, respectively.
Why get to know the stars and their places? Knowing more about these twinkling lights deepens your appreciation of them, and appreciating things makes your heart happy. Familiarity with the constellations also feels like making friends. Stars become familiar faces at different times of the year no matter where you happen to be on Earth. They might even inspire you to become an astrophysicist and devote your life to better understanding their appearance and behavior.
Let's start making connections. In the spring sky there are two prominent asterisms called the Spring Triangle and Great Diamond. Three prominent stars outline the Triangle: Arcturus in Boötes the Herdsman; Spica in Virgo the Virgin and Denebola in Leo the Lion. Arcturus is the brightest and easiest to find, located by following the arc of the Big Dipper's handle toward the eastern horizon. Continue that arc, and you'll soon land on Spica, Virgo's brightest star, which marks the bottom apex of the Triangle.
The third star, Denebola, pins the right side of the figure which measures more than three fists (35°) on a side. It's a big triangle and stands out boldly because no bright stars mess with its outline or fill up the inside. Once you find it, you'll be led to the three constellations this trio of suns inhabit.
From Denebola, connect the "dots" — a exercise also called star-hopping — to puzzle out the outline of Leo, the brightest and easiest spring constellation. Arcturus will coax you into Boötes, which is shaped like an ice cream cone tipped on its side. Spica resides at the bottom of a large, chalice-shaped cup (or the letter Y, take your pick) that forms the major outline of Virgo. The cup sits directly under Denebola and Leo's tail.
You can see the Spring Triangle as early as 9:30 p.m. local time in mid-April, but it might be better to wait until after 10 p.m. to give Spica time to rise higher and clear obstructions like tree tops and buildings.
Once you've found this asterism the next is super easy. Just add Cor Caroli, the brightest member of the small constellation Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs and voilà, you've got a giant diamond. This simple addition expands the four-starred asterism to five fists tall and more than three wide! Cor Caroli is one of two stars that outline the hunting dogs, making Canes Venatici one of the easier constellations to find.
Both springtime asterisms will remain well-placed for viewing throughout the season and early summer, so you'll have lots of time to explore these stars and their associated constellations. Happy star-hopping!
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.