The Big Dipper Facts and Finding North

The asterism of seven stars that make up the constellation Ursa Major - The Great Bear.

The Big Dipper can tell you where north is since it is a circumpolar asterism (from our latitude of about 42° north), all of its stars are visible regardless of the time of night or time of year. When you have located the Big Dipper connect the two outer stars of the bowl opposite of the handle,  Merak and Dubhe. With an imaginary line extend that line up and beyond the open end of the bowl, the next star you will encounter (just over five times the height of the bowl away) will be Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is apart of the Ursa Minor constellation.

A lot of people mistake Polaris to be the brightest star in the night sky which is not true. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. People also confuse Sirius with the North Star. Polaris, at magnitude 1.97, is only about the 45th brightest star in the sky, and is in fact outshone by three of the stars the Big Dipper.

Ancient Observers

The constellations we are currently familiar with originate from “Ptolemy’s 48 constellations” compiled from ancient Greek constellations by Claudius Ptolemaeus (from 90 A.D. to about 168 A.D.). He was a Greek astronomer flourishing in Alexandria, Egypt in the second century A. D. In Hindu Astronomy the stars are known as the Seven Great Sages. Ancient Egyptians represented the stars as an ox’s foreleg. The location of these seven stars were very important to the ancient Egyptians and were monitored throughout the night and the course of the year.


1. Vintage Illustration 1800’s

2. Big Dipper (upside down) taken from the ISS in 2003 NASA

3. The Big Dipper above my house. I labeled the stars so you can find Merak and Dubhe. 

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