"Follow the Drinking Gourd, for the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom" is perhaps one of the most famous references to the Big Dipper from the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd." Also referred to in the Iliad by Homer as "The Bear, that men call Wain" and in the Bible as "the seven stars" in Amos 5:8 of the King James Version, the Big Dipper has a presence in literature as well as in the northern skies.
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Not a Constellation
The Big Dipper is not a constellation, but is a group of stars that is part of the large constellation of Great Bear. The Big Dipper's handle makes up the bear's tail. The official name for the Great Bear constellation is Ursa Major, which means "the big she-bear" in Latin.
Seven Major Stars
The Big Dipper consists of seven major stars. Beginning at the tip of the handle, working down and then clockwise around the bowl of the dipper they are Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Dubhe, Merak and Phecda.
The two stars at the tip of the bowl of the Big Dipper, Dubhe and Merak, point towards the North Star. Slave songs referred to a drinking gourd to follow to a better life, referring to the Big Dipper and these pointer stars to aid escaping slaves on their trip north to freedom in Canada.
The middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper, Mizar, is actually a double star. Alcor is a smaller star that is close to Mizar. You can see both stars through a set of binoculars or a telescope, though many can see Alcor unaided. Another term for Alcor and Mizar is "horse and rider."
The stars in the Big Dipper are as bright as the North Star and are the brightest stars in the Great Bear constellation.
The Big Dipper rotates around the North Star, so its position depends on the time of night and the season.
Native Americans refer to the Big Dipper as the Big Bear, with the bowl representing a bear and the three stars in the handle representing three hunters. The French refer to the Big Dipper as the saucepan and the British refer to it as the plough.
Featured on a Flag
Designed by then 13-year-old Benny Benson in 1926, the state flag of Alaska features the seven stars of the Big Dipper and the North Star.
The closest star in the Big Dipper is Alioth at 68 light-years from the Earth. The furthest star in the Big Dipper is Alkaid at 210 light-years away.
The Big Dipper is in the Northern Celestial Hemisphere.
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- "The Stars"; H.A. Rey; 2008
- The Constellations and Their Stars: Ursa Major
- Art's Observational Astronomy Pages: Find the Dipper and the North Star
- Eric Kline; Institute of Scientific Computing at Texas A&M; University: What Is the Big Dipper
- Finding the Pole Star; From Stargazers to Starships; David P. Stern
- Matt Oltersdorf: The Celestial Sphere