Even if you're new to stargazing, no doubt you've seen the seven bright stars that outline the Big Dipper, and this time of year they are easy to find. As soon as it's dark enough after sunset, look high in the northern sky near the overhead zenith for the upside down Big Dipper.
Believe it or not, the Big Dipper, as bright and well known as it is, is not an official constellation. Back in the 1930's astronomers from all around the world got together and agreed on a standard set of 88 constellations - and the Big Dipper wasn't one of them. You would think the most famous star pattern known would rate the title of constellation, but instead, it's what astronomers call an asterism.
The Big Dipper, my favorite asterism, is actually part of the official constellation known by its Latin name as Ursa Major, or in English as the Big Bear. Ursa Major is one of the largest constellations in the heavens, and the Big Dipper is the brightest part, making up the rear end and the tail of the bear. This is a great time to see the upside down Big Bear because it's so high in the sky. Even if you're stargazing in a light polluted urban or suburban locale you still have a really good chance to see all of Ursa Major. It will take a bit of work and a little bit of imagination though. I also highly recommend a comfortable lawn chair to lie back on. That will make it much easier on your neck and back!
Start your celestial Big Bear hunt using the Big Dipper. The handle of the dipper outlines the unusually long tail of the bear, and the four stars that outline the pot are the bear's rear end. Look just to the lower left of the pot section for three dimmer stars forming a skinny triangle that allegedly outlines the Big Bear's head. That's one of the dimmest parts of the Big Bear so once you've seen that, the rest of Ursa Major should be easy. From that skinny triangle, look to the upper left for two stars right next to each other that should jump right out at you. These are called Talitha and Al Kapra, and they mark the bear's front paw. Between the front paw stars and the triangular head is a star that makes up the bear's knee. 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. To see that second front leg, you really have to put your imagination in overdrive!
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. Unless you're in the dark countryside I wouldn't even bother with the other back leg. Its stars are just too faint. To see the back leg in the foreground, go back to Talitha and Al Kapra (that make up the front leg) and gaze to the upper right of those stars for two more stars right next to each other. Those are Tanis Borealis and Tanis Australis that make up the back paw. They're not quite as close to each other as Talitha and Al Kapra, but they're still in a pretty close embrace. From Borealis and Tanis Australis look for two more stars that form a curved line to the lower right that links up with the bright star Phecda and the corner of the Big Dipper's pot (or the rear end of Ursa Major). Once you see this rear leg, you've done it. You've just seen the Big Bear, one of the largest constellations in the heavens!
The seven stars that make up the Little Dipper are the same seven that outline the Little Bear, otherwise known as Ursa Minor. The Little Dipper is not nearly as easy to see as the Big Dipper, especially if you're viewing from light polluted areas. 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. 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 of the stars in the sky whirl around the North Star in the same period. I call it the “Lynchpin” of the sky. Use Dubhe and Merak, the two bright stars in the pot of the Big Dipper, 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.
The Little Dipper will be below the Big Dipper in the early evening this time of year and is standing on its handle. Polaris is at the end of the handle. The next brightest stars you see to the upper right of Polaris are Kochab and Pherkad. The line between these stars makes up the outer edge of the Little Dipper's pot opposite the handle. Your mission, 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.
Diagram of Ursa Major and Minor...Click here