This June evening, look to the sky around nightfall. The first “star” you will likely see is really a planet, Jupiter. It’s in the west as soon as the sun goes down. Then look nearly due south for sparkling blue-white Spica, in Virgo. Just don’t mistake the nearby ruddy planet Mars, or the golden planet Saturn, for Spica. You can distinguish blue-white Spica from golden Saturn and reddish Mars by color. Also, see the charts on this page. Okay … got Spica? Now, as nightfall deepens into later evening, watch for a number of fainter stars to become visible. Below and to the right of Spica and Mars are the constellations of Corvus the Crow, Crater the Cup, and Hydra the Water Snake.
In Greek mythology, Apollo sent the crow to fetch a cup of water. Corvus, however, got distracted eating figs and after much delay, finally remembered his mission. Rightly figuring that Apollo would be angry, the crow plucked a snake from the water and concocted a story about how it had attacked and delayed him. Apollo was not fooled and angrily flung all three into the sky, placing the crow and cup on the snake’s back. Then the god ordered Hydra to never let the crow drink from the cup. As a further punishment, he ordered that the crow could never sing again, only screech and caw.
None of these constellations has any bright stars, but Hydra holds the distinction of being the longest constellation in the heavens.
By the way, you can see the ecliptic with the mind’s-eye this month by referring to the planets Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, plus key stars of the Zodiac: Regulus, Spica and Antares. Again, see the charts at right.
While these stars will be in the same place in the sky at this time next year, the planets will have moved relative to the backdrop stars. Mars goes full circle in front of the constellations of the Zodiac in about two years, while Jupiter takes about 12 years and Saturn 30 years.
Bottom line: There are three planets easily visible in the sky at nightfall. Use them to locate the star Spica in the constellation Virgo. Then use the bright star Spica to help you find the constellations of Corvus the Crow, Crater the Cup, and Hydra the Water Snake.