This constellation is defined by seven prominent stars aligned in the shape of a kitchen pot. Meaning Great Bear in Latin, it’s also often observed to be a bear. In July and August, you’ll find Ursa Major in the northwest, says Christine Clement, University of Toronto professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics. Gain street cred with your little astronaut by letting her know that the second star from the end of the pot’s handle is in fact two stars. It was once an eyesight test — those who could see the two stars with their naked eye were thought to have excellent vision.
When trying to point out the W- or crown-shaped Cassiopeia, look to the North Star. Clement says, “Cassiopeia and Ursa Major are on opposite sides of the North Star, but not directly opposite each other.” According to legend, the vain and cruel Cassiopeia vexed her enemy Poseidon so much that he tilted her royal seat as she was fixed in the heavens — so for half of the night, as Cassiopeia revolves around the Pole Star, the queen is forced to hang on to her throne as she dangles upside down in the sky.
To find Scorpius, shift your gaze down toward the southern horizon, and look for a group of stars resembling a scorpion’s tail. “Its distinguishing feature is the bright red star, Antares, in the middle of the constellation,” says Clement. The myth behind Scorpius: Orion was a bold, brave hunter who claimed that he could and would track and kill all animals. Mother Earth, Gaia, was not impressed with his arrogance and split open to release a scorpion, which then stung Orion to death. The gods pitied youthful Orion, and so placed him in the heavens, but on the opposite side of the zodiac from Scorpius (the ancient equivalent of sending offenders to their respective rooms).
Now that you’re prepared for identifying the major constellations, the next step is to check the weather forecast and pick a clear night. Light pollution can interfere with optimum conditions, so for the best views, head off to a park just outside the city. But on clear nights, you don’t have to go much further than your own backyard. Just scope out a spot, grab a blanket and a thermos of iced tea, and you’re ready for some prime time viewing. Clement recommends picking up the latest issue of SkyNews — which comes packed with handy maps and sky charts — for further viewings.Â We think it’ll also make a stellar gift for your intrepid astronomer.