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The Big Dipper

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076

The Big Dipper

OLogy Series
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The Big Dipper is a grouping of stars within the constellation Ursa Major, also known as The Great Bear. The best time to view the Big Dipper is on a spring night when it is above the northern horizon. Look for the seven brightest stars of Ursa Major. Once you find these stars, youÂ’ll see the "bowl" and "handle" that make up the Big Dipper.

Big Dipper: A Big Part of History
Stories about the Big Dipper can be found in many different cultures. Some stories date back to 1400 B.C.E. Many Native American cultures judged the strength and maturity of a young man by his ability to locate the Big Dipper. If the young man could find the Big Dipper in the night sky, and accurately describe the double star in the handle, the elder knew that the young man would have good eyesight when hunting for food or when defending the tribe. Before the Civil War, the Big Dipper was a guide to freedom for slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad. The Big Dipper points to the North Star. Runaway slaves who found the Big Dipper used it to lead them North to freedom.

Benny and the Big Dipper
In 1926, a contest put thirteen-year-old Benny Benson in Alaskan history books forever. Children from grades seven to twelve were selected to participate in a contest that involved creating a design for the Alaskan flag. Seventh-grader Benny Benson was one of the participants. Benny decided to use all of the beautiful things that represent Alaska in his design. He decided that the background color of the flag should be blue. Blue represents the Alaskan sky and is also the color of the forget-me-not, Alaska's state flower. He decided to decorate the flag with eight gold stars that represented the seven stars of the Big Dipper and the North Star. The stars are symbolic of Alaska's position in relation to the heavens. The state of Alaska has used Benny's design on the state flag ever since!

Frank Summers, astrophysicist

The handle of the Big Dipper represents the long tail of the Great Bear. Obviously, constellations were not drawn by zoologists, because real bears have short, stubby tails.

The Big Dipper is a constellation.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

It's an asterism, a grouping of stars that create a shape within a constellation. The Big Dipper is in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

In 100,000 years, the Big Dipper will look more like a shoe than a ladle.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

Stars are always in motion. The stars of the Big Dipper look like they're together, but they are actually far apart and moving in different directions.

Location: in the constellation Ursa Major
Shape: seven bright stars resembling a ladle when seen from Earth
Significance: one of the most recognizable groups of stars in the Northern Hemisphere
Distance: stars range from 68 to 631 light-years away from Earth

Image credits: courtesy of AMNH; Frank Summers: AMNH.