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Bears Flying High, Oh My!

Outside of the moon the easiest thing to find in the night sky, even in brightly lit urban areas, has to be the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper. As soon as it's dark enough after sunset, look high in the northwestern sky for the Big Dipper hanging by its handle.

Many people think of the Big Dipper as the brightest constellation in the heavens. The problem's not actually considered a constellation, at least officially. Almost 80 years ago there was a worldwide convention of astronomers. Their main task was to agree on a standard set of constellations to avoid worldwide confusion. They came up with eighty eight constellations, and the Big Dipper didn't make the cut. Instead, the Big Dipper is dubbed an asterism, a distinct pattern of stars, one tiny step below a constellation. You would think the most famous star pattern in the sky would rate the title of constellation, but that's how it is. Go figure.

So the Big Dipper, the bright asterism, is the rear end and tail of a larger actual constellation called Ursa Major, or Great Bear. It is the brightest part of the bear. Ursa Major is high enough in the sky this time of year that it's easy to find the rest of the bear. A little bit of imagination, a semi dark sky, and comfortable lawn chairs really get the job done!

Look just to the lower right of the pot section of the Big Dipper for three dimmer stars forming a skinny triangle that allegedly outline the Big Bear's head. That's the dimmest part of the Big Bear, so once you see that you're in the stargazing driver's seat. From the skinny triangle, look down and a little to the left for two stars right next to each other. You can't miss them. They should jump right out at you. These are called Talitha and Al Kapra, and they mark the position of the bear's front paw. Between the front paw stars and the triangular head is a star that makes up the bear's knee, and once you spot that you've seen one of the front legs of Ursa Major. Unfortunately there are no stars that make up the other front leg. A very complete imagination is needed for that.

There are two curved lines of stars that outline the Bear's back legs, but the one in the foreground is much easier to see than the one in the background. Just look to the upper left of the two front paw stars Talitha and Al Kapra for two more stars right next to each other. Those are Tanis Borealis and Tanis Australis that make up the back paw of the Big Bear. From the back paw you see a line of stars that curves back to the left that hooks up with the back of the pot section, or derriere, of the Big Bear. That's it! Well done! You've just traced Ursa Major, one of the largest constellations in the heavens!

Meanwhile, seven much dimmer stars make up the Little Dipper which is also known as Ursa Minor, or Little Bear. Obviously it's much easier to see it as the Little Dipper. It's not nearly as easy to see as the Big Dipper, especially if it's competing with any kind of urban lighting. The best way to see The Little Dipper, or Little Bear, is to find Polaris the North Star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, or the end of the tail of the Little Bear. Just use Dubhe and Merak, the two bright stars in the front edge of the pot of the Big Dipper, opposite the handle, as pointer stars to Polaris. The North Star should be about three of your fist-widths at arm's length to the lower right of Dubhe and Merak.

Polaris is not the brightest star in our sky, but it is a very significant one because it shines directly above the Earth's North Pole. As the Earth spins on its axis once every 24 hours, it appears to us that all the stars in the sky whirl around the North Star in the same period. I call it the "Lynchpin" of the sky.

Tonight as darkness sets in, look for the Little Dipper standing on its handle about halfway up in the northern sky, to the upper right of the hanging Big Dipper. Once you find Polaris at the end of the handle, look for the next two brightest stars you can see above Polaris. They are called Kochab and Pherkad, and they make up the far side of the Little Dipper's pot. Your challenge, and it's not an easy one, is to find the four very dim stars between Polaris and Kochab/Pherkad that make up the rest of the pot and handle of the Little Dipper. This sounds crazy, but turn your head slightly away from where you think those dimmer stars are. You'll have a better chance of seeing them. That's what amateur astronomers call averted vision. Many see a little better out of the side of their eyes. Honestly, it really works!