Have you noticed the leaping dipper?
The Big Dipper, in its never tiring circumlocution of the northern heavens, presents itself on spring evenings as if it is leaping in a burst of joy. Let your imagination soar, just as the ancients did who organized the stars into constellation patterns. It’s not extremely scientific, but it’s all part of the love of the night sky that keeps us, from professional scientist to the casual star watcher, with their neck craned back and their eyes looking up.
As many may know, the Big Dipper is part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major, the Great Bear. We once had an ursa major in the backyard stand on its hind legs and peer right in the kitchen window. It’s fun living near the woods.
The Big Dipper, as such, is not among the officially listed 88 constellations, but is an “asterism,” which is basically another word for constellations that aren’t really constellations. Recognized around the world and across cultures and the span of time, the seven stars have been variously referred to as a plow, (Ireland and Great Britain), a butcher’s cleaver (northern England), a wagon (some parts of England and Scandinavia), a sauce pan (Holland), a medicine cart (Hungary), the Seven Sages (Hindu), Seven Gods (Mongolia), coffin (Arabia), drinking gourd (Africa) and of course the Big Dipper (North America).
Amos 5:8 in the Bible refers to the “Seven Stars,” which some believe may be the Big Dipper, or more commonly heard, the Pleiades star cluster.
In any case, the Big Dipper serves as a convenient pointer to the North Star, about which our whole sky seems to revolve. The front two stars of the Big Dipper do the pointing. It is oriented in spring evenings climbing the northeast, its dipper about to unload its contents. In summer, look for it “dipping down” in the northwest.
Here’s the names of the seven stars. Learn them and be possibly the first on the block to be able to regal your guests with this information.
The end star of the “handle” is Alkaid, followed by Mizar (more later), Alioth, and the Megrez, the first corner of the “bowl.” Move down the side of the “bowl” to Phecda, across the bottom of the “bowl” to Merak, and then up to Dubhe. Again as seen on spring evenings, the bottom of the “bowl” is on top.
If you have reasonably good eyesight you should be able to see the dim star right next to Mizar, known as Alcor. Binoculars will show it very clearly. Aim a small telescope at Mizar and using a magnification of about 40x or more, you will at once see that Mizar is split into two stars very near each other. The magnified view will show Alcor far apart from Mizar but in the same field of view. Mizar and Alcor are a chance alignment and are not associated to each other, but the two stars of Mizar are an actual double (binary), connected by gravity.
The North Star (Polaris) is at the tip of the “handle” of the Little Dipper. Most of the these stars are considerably fainter than in the Big Dipper. The official name for the Little Dipper group is Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.
Note Dubhe’s yellow shade, in binoculars.
Full moon is on April 4.
Keep looking up!