Stars have long held a fascination for humans.
For as long as we have looked up at the night sky, we have categorized, named, and organized the stars we see twinkling overhead.
The stars visible to us change depending on where we are, and what time of year it is.
Summer constellations are collections of stars best viewed in the night sky between the summer months of June to late September. Here, we will explore the identification, myths, and location of the 7 biggest and brightest summer constellations of the Northern Hemisphere: Sagittarius, Scorpius, Cygnus, Aquila, Lyra, Ophiuchus, and Hercules.
Summer Constellations (Northern Hemisphere)
For star gazers in the Northern Hemisphere, the Sagittarius constellation can be seen low in the sky from June through to August.
If you are late to your sky watching this summer, then you still have a chance to catch it on very clear evenings in September just before it sets.
It was first identified and named by the Ancient Greek astronomers who thought it resembled a centaur shooting an arrow into its neighbouring Scorpius constellation.
Sagittarius is the Greek word for archer.
In the modern era, Sagittarius is sometimes called ‘the teapot’ – if you look closely, you may be able to see some starry steam coming from its spout.
You can find Scorpius glowing low down in the southern horizon where it forms the shape of a great scorpion in the sky.
Scorpius is one of the oldest documented constellations in the Northern Hemisphere, having first been identified by the Sumerians over 5,000 years ago.
To find Scorpius, first find the Milky Way.
The constellation is right in the center of the milky way and is easily identified by the bright stars of Shaula and Antares.
Cygnus, or The Swan constellation, got its name from the Latin word for swan.
It was first identified by the Ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy early in the 2nd century.
Its brightest star is Deneb Alpha Cygni and it has two meteor showers associated with it: the Kappa and October Cygnids.
You can identify Cygnus by first finding the Summer Triangle.
If you follow the upper point of the triangle you will reach a bright star called Deneb which makes up the tail of the great celestial swan.
The myth of Cygnus is a lesson in friendship.
Two young gods were racing across the sky when they fell to Earth.
One fell into a river and sank to the bottom.
His dismayed companion begged Zeus to turn him into a sawn so he could dive down and retrieve his fallen friend.
He succeeded, and Zeus was moved to immortalize this act of bravery in the stars forever.
Aquila is the Latin words for ‘eagle’ and is named after the great eagle that carried Zeus’s thunderbolts across the sky.
It can be found along the celestial equator in the northern hemisphere where it flies opposite Cygnus and above Sagittarius.
To make your stargazing even more special – try and find Aquila on a night in June.
You might be able to spot the June Aquilids meteor shower that peppers the celestial eagle with dusty, glittering stars.
Aquila is made up of several notable stars including Altair, the 12th brightest star in the sky, which forms the eagle’s head.
Altair also makes up the three-starred Summer Triangle asterism which is a helpful orientation-point for beginner astronomers.
A few degrees East from Cygnus lies the Lyra constellation.
This little-known summer constellation is one of the smallest in the Northern Hemisphere, coming in at 22nd place.
However, it contains a beautiful star called Vega, the 2nd brightest star in the northern hemisphere and 5th brightest star in the sky.
Lyra was named after the lyre of the poet Orpheus who, according to Greek mythology, cast his lyre into a river upon his death.
So legendary was the music of Orpheus that Zeus came down from the heavens to retrieve the lyre and set it permanently by his side in the sky.
When searching for Lyra, it’s important to know that it can go by different names.
In some places you will see it labelled as Vultur Cadens (“falling vulture”), or Aquila Cadens (“falling eagle”).
Ophiuchus is visible in the Northern Hemisphere from late spring through to early fall, meaning you should be able to spot it throughout summer.
It lies between Sagittarius and Scorpius and is one of the larger constellations in the night sky, ranking 11th out of 88 constellations.
The Greek meaning of ‘Ophiuchus’ is “the serpent bearer” and is usually depicted as the figure of Asclepius, the son of Zeus.
Asclepius was a gifted healer who learned to bring people back to life after observing a snake use herbs to revive a fellow snake.
Depictions of Ophiuchus illustrate the figure of Asclepius holding the tale of a snake – the nearby Serpens constellation.
Hercules is one of the most ancient constellations in the night sky.
Its identification predated even the Ancient Greeks as it was first associated with Gilgamesh, a figure in Sumerian mythology.
Although technically a summer constellation, the faintness of the Hercules constellation means it is sometimes easier to locate at the start of fall, especially in urban areas with lots of light pollution.
It lies in the 3rd quadrant of the Northern Hemisphere between latitudes of +90 and -50 degrees.
This dramatic constellation is named after the mythological hero Hercules, who completed 12 tasks to redeem himself from sin.
For his eleventh task, Hercules had to slay the dragon Ladon who guarded the golden apples of Hesperides.
The foot of the celestial Hercules therefore lies on the head of the Draco constellation – a permanent reminder of bravery.
The months of summer provide two extraordinary things: warmer weather for more time outside, and a collection of some of the most beautiful constellations the Northern Hemisphere has to offer.
Once you learn to locate the Milky Way and Summer Triangle, the rest of these glittering constellations will be easy to find for beginner and experienced stargazers alike.
You might also like:
- What Are Constellations Used For?
- A Guide To Greek Constellations
- A Guide To Navigation Constellations
- Constellations For Love (A List)
- Constellations For Friendship (A List)
- Animal Constellations (a Guide)
- Autumn Constellations
- Spring Constellations
- Winter Constellations
- Summer Constellations