Ursa Major or "Great Bear" is a constellation that contains the Big Dipper, an asterism, or pattern of stars that is not itself an official constellation. The Big Dipper may be the best known group of stars in the sky, since its size and shape make it easy to pick out. The ability to locate the Big Dipper has been important in periods of history. According to Wisconsin State University, fugitive slaves located the Big Dipper because it pointed to the North Star, and they sang a song called "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which promised a better future if you followed the stars north to freedom. If you would like to locate the Big Dipper, there are a few tips that can help you pinpoint it.
- Skill level:
- Moderately Easy
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Things you need
- Compass, if necessary
Find a spot at night away from the glow of bright lights.
Face north. If you are unsure of which direction is north, the area of sky that the sun set in should be on your left. Otherwise, use a compass to point you in the proper direction.
Look up into the northern night sky, starting at the horizon line. When you get one-third of the way up the sky (zenith being directly over your head), look for seven stars that stand out from the others. The three stars that make up the handle of the Big Dipper are usually the brightest (Alkaid, Mizar, and Alioth). Follow where the handle bends down, and that will take you to the bowl of the dipper, made up of four stars (Megrez, Pecda, Merak, and Dubhe).
Follow the two stars that form the outside of the Big Dipper's bowl (Merak and Dubhe). An imaginary line runs through them to the North Star (Polaris), a relatively isolated and not particularly bright star. The ability to find the North Star is a survival skill if you are ever lost, as once you know where North is, you can make your way in any necessary direction. The North Star is also the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.
The Big Dipper can also be used to find other stars. To take one example--by following the curve of the handle, the eye can trace an imaginary arc to Arcturus, the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere (behind only Sirius) and then on from Arcturus to Spica. Astronomers use the following mnemonic: "Arc to Arcturus then speed on to Spica." Likewise, the Big Dipper can be used to locate Capella, the twin stars Castor and Pollux, and Regulus in the constellation Leo.
Tips and warnings
- Ursa Major, like all the constellations, rotates around the North Star as the seasons change. In the fall, the Big Dipper is upright and found low on the horizon. In the spring it is upside down over top of the North Star. In winter, you will find it east of the North star, and west of it in the summer.
- Practice finding the Big Dipper and Polaris without a compass; otherwise, if you ever need to rely on that ability as a survival skill, you may not be able to do it.
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