The constellation Ursa Major can be seen near the Celestial North Pole all year long.
Click on image for full size
Windows to the Universe original image
Ursa Major is probably the most famous constellation, with the exception of Orion. Also known as the Great Bear, it has a companion called Ursa Minor, or Little Bear. The body and tail of the bear make up what is known as the Big Dipper. Also called names such as the Plough, the Wain and even the Wagon, this constellation has a lot of history behind it.
Several different cultures saw a big bear in the sky. The ancient Greeks had a few different stories to explain how the animal ended up there. In one story, Hera discovered Zeus was having an affair with Callisto and turned her into a bear. Zeus put her in the sky along with her son, Arcas, who became the Little Bear.
Ursa Major is full of unique celestial objects. Two of the stars, Dubhe and Merak, are pointer stars. If you are looking at the Big Dipper, the outer edge stars that make up the "bowl" of the dipper are the two stars, with Merak being the one on top. Connect a line between the two, and extend it north a distance about five times the distance between them. It will connect with the North Star, Polaris.
If you connect the handle of the dipper with a line, it will lead to the star, Arcturus, in the constellation, Bootes. In one Greek myth, the star represented the guardian, Arcturus, who kept the bears from straying from their path. Above the head of the bear are two galaxies, M81 and M82. Both are 12 million light years away, but M81 is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky. Finally, the Owl Nebula is located to the lower left of Dubhe. It is so named because some photographs reveal what looks like a pair of eyes.
Most of the constellation is circumpolar, which means it can be viewed all year long. However, parts of the legs will disappear from the sky in the fall and reappear in the winter.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist
, available in our online store
, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.
You might also be interested in:
What types of instructional experiences help K-8 students learn science with understanding? What do science educators teachers, teacher leaders, science specialists, professional development staff, curriculum designers, school administrators need to know to create and support such experiences?...more
In Greek mythology, Zeus (Jupiter in Roman mythology) was the king of heaven and Earth and of all the Olympian gods. He was also known as the god of justice. He was named king of the gods in the special...more
What's in a Name: Arabic for "bear" Claim to Fame: One of the famous Pointer stars that point to the North Star. Type of Star: Orange Giant How Far Away: 75 light years away How Bright: 100 times brighter...more
What's in a Name: Arabic for the "flank" of the Bear. Claim to Fame: One of the famous Pointer stars that point to the North Star. Type of Star: White Main Sequence How Far Away: 62 light years away How...more
What's in a Name: So named because it is the closest star to the celestial north pole. Claim to Fame: It's the famous North Star! (actually a triple star system) Type of Star: Yellow-white Supergiant...more
What's in a Name: Greek for "Bearkeeper". The bear is the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear). Claim to Fame: 4th brightest star in the sky. The reddish light of Arcturus striking a photoelectric...more
Bootes, the herdsman, rides through the sky during the late Spring and early Summer. While he may have appeared as a shepherd to the ancients, modern star-gazers like us can easily recognize the shape...more
Something new and exciting is happening at Windows to the Universe! Windows scientists say they discovered twelve new stars, including one that is the second brightest in the night sky! They decided to...more