Big Dipper Sure, But Have You Seen The Great Bear?

The Great Bear Ursa Major stands high in the northwestern sky at the end of evening twilight this month and into July. The moon is shown for tonight June 16. Created with Stellarium

The Big Dipper is the #1 most familiar star group in the northern hemisphere. Just about everyone has seen it. Orion comes in second and everything else a distant third. As many of you already know, the Dipper is only part of a constellation, what astronomers call an asterism. If you connect the rest of the dots you’ll make a bear up there by the name of Ursa Major. The Great Bear.

June and and the first half of July are good times to take a few minutes at the end of dusk and see if you can go beyond the familiar Dipper outline.

Mythological depiction of Ursa Major on the 19th century Urania’s Mirror atlas.

While none of Ursa Major’s additional stars are as bright as the Dipper, they form distinct shapes, especially the long, furry legs and two-toed claws, although in the sky the whole works appears rather bony. The head is triangular and with a little imagination bears some resemblance to a bear’s. What you’ve always pictured as a dipper bowl is repurposed as back and belly, and the handle is an unnaturally long but still very believable tail.

The seven brightest stars of Ursa Major form the familiar Big Dipper. Many civilizations past and present recognized the form and often pictured it as a bear. Each star has its own name, all derived from Arabic.  The star in the bend of the handle is a true double star. Credit: Bob King

I’ve always been impressed with the large size of the Ursa Major constellation. In that regard it’s most like a real bear with a commanding physical presence. Checking a list of constellation size by area, I see that the Great Bear takes 3rd place behind Virgo and Hydra with 1,280 square degrees of heavenly territory. Good thing it isn’t trapped in its cage. Earth’s rotation day and night ensures our ursine friend gets plenty of exercise circling round the polestar Polaris.

2 Responses

  1. Betty Christensen

    Thanks for the diagram. I never could find it but now it’s clear! Orion is still my favorite, especially in the August sky over the lake.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Betty,
      You’re welcome – glad you found it useful. I’m also a fan of Orion’s return in August over the lake.

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