The Big Dipper is a star constellation consisting of seven bright stars. So named because it resembles a large soup ladle, the Big Dipper actually is part of a larger constellation known as Ursa Major, or the Great Bear; when looked at in conjunction with these stars, it resembles the tail of a bear. Stargazers can use this constellation as a reference point when attempting to view other stars and planets. People also often use it to determine which direction they are going when travelling at night.
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What are Constellations?
Star constellations are simply groupings of stars that appear to form shapes. According to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK), many constellations were identified and named over 5,000 years ago and often represented mythological creatures or animals believed to have special powers. UTK says that the Big Dipper is technically considered an asterism rather than a constellation because it is a group of stars located within a larger constellation.
Shape of the Big Dipper
The Big Dipper consists of seven bright stars arranged in the shape of a soup ladle. The top of the Big Dipper consists of three stars which form a handle; the other four stars form a rectangle that could be considered the bowl of the dipper.
Distance of Big Dipper Stars
Although the stars making up the Big Dipper appear to be grouped together, in actuality they are distant from one another. According to UTK, the stars in the tail of the dipper are much farther away from Earth than the stars in the bowl. The closest star to Earth is about 62 light years away; the star at the top of the handle is about 360 light years away.
The two stars on the outer edges of the bowl are named Dubhe and Merak. Windows to the Universe, an astronomy site, calls them pointer stars. If you imagine a straight line extending up from Dubhe through Merak, you will encounter Polaris, or the North Star. The North Star does not appear to move because it is above the North Pole. Travelers can use Polaris to determine the direction they are travelling in.
Big Dipper and Astronomy
Astronomers also use the Big Dipper as a point of reference when viewing other stars. The stars in the handle of the Big Dipper are especially helpful for this purpose. According to Windows to the Universe, astronomers can follow the handle of the dipper to find Arcturus, a bright star in the Bootes star system. Arcturus is significant because it is located in M81, a distant galaxy that contains many bright stars. Astronomers can also locate the Owl Nebula, a constellation shaped like an owl's eyes, by looking to the lower left of Dubhe.
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