How to Find the Boötes Constellation

This kite-shaped star pattern can be viewed from almost anywhere on Earth

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Four easy-to-spot constellations in northern hemisphere skies. Carolyn Collins Petersen

The constellation Boötes is one of the easiest star patterns to spot in the northern hemisphere. It also serves as a wayfinder for other stellar visions and lies right next to the famous asterism called "The Big Dipper" in Ursa Major. To the unaided eye, Boötes looks like a giant ice-cream cone or a kite, sailing among the stars.

How to Find Boötes

Boötes
The constellation Boötes is has a distinctive shape and is easy to find by starhopping from the nearby Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major.

 Carolyn Collins Petersen

To find Boötes, first locate the Big Dipper in the northern part of the sky. Using the curve of the handle, imagine a curved line drawn from the end of the dipper down to the bright star Arcturus ("arc to Arcturus"). This star is the tip of Boötes and can be seen as the bottom of the kite or the ice cream cone.

Böotes is visible to most people on Earth from early spring until well into autumn and is high in the sky for most northern hemisphere explorers during June. For those living south of the equator, Boötes is a northern sky constellation.

The Story of the Constellation Boötes

The tales of Boötes date back into antiquity. In ancient Babylon and China, this constellation was seen as a god or a king's throne, respectively. Some early North Americans called it the "Fish Trap." The name Boötes comes from the Greek word "herdsman," with some derivations calling it "ox-driver." 

Boötes is often connected with farming, and in some Greek legends, he was associated with the invention of the plow. The appearance of these stars high in the spring and summer skies certainly does seem to herald the season of planting in the northern hemisphere.

Key Stars in Boötes

Boötes
The entire constellation of Boötis shown with IAU boundaries and the brightest stars that make up the pattern. Courtesy the IAU.

 International Astronomical Union

The familiar kite-shaped outline contains at least nine bright stars, plus other stars included in the International Astronomical Union boundary of the constellation. These larger boundaries are set by international agreement and allow astronomers to use common references for stars and other objects in all areas of the sky.

Notice that each star has a Greek letter next to it. The alpha (α) denotes the brightest star, beta (β) the second-brightest star, and so on. The brightest star in Boötes is Arcturus, denoted as α Boötis. It's a double star and its name means "Guardian of the Bear" from the Greek word "Arktouros." Arcturus, a giant red star, lies about 37 light-years away from us. It is 170 times brighter and a couple of billion years older than our Sun.

Arcturus is easily visible to the naked eye, as are most of the other stars in the pattern. The second-brightest star in the constellation is called β Boötis, or Nekkar. It is an aging yellow giant. Nekkar lies about 58 light-years away and is about 50 times more luminous than the Sun.

Other stars in the constellation are multiple star systems. One that is easy to see through a good telescope is called μ Boötis, which has three stars doing a complex orbital dance with one another.

Deep Sky Objects in Constellation Boötes

Boötes globular cluster chart
Use this chart to spy out the only globular cluster in constellation Boötes.

When it come to deep sky objects like nebulae or clusters, Boötes is situated in a relatively "bare" part of the sky. However, there is one fairly bright globular cluster called NGC 5466, which can be spotted with a telescope.

NGC 5466 lies some 51,000 light-years from Earth. It has about 180,000 solar masses packed into a fairly small area of space. To observers with small telescopes, this cluster looks like a faint, fuzzy smudge. Larger telescopes clarify the view. However, the best views have been taken using the Hubble Space Telescopewhich was able provide a better look at individual stars crammed into the heart of this distant cluster.

Also in the constellation are a pair of galaxies called NGC 5248 and NGC 5676. Amateur observers with good telescopes can find a few other galaxies in the constellation, but they will appear somewhat dim and faint.