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Bears Flying High, Oh My! Ursa Major and Ursa Minor

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 itís 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 isÖitís 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 didnít 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 thatís 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 itís 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 Bearís head. Thatís the dimmest part of the Big Bear, so once you see that youíre in the stargazing driverís seat. From the skinny triangle, look down and a little to the left for two stars right next to each other. You canít miss them. They should jump right out at you. These are called Talitha and Al Kapra, and they mark the position of the bearís front paw. Between the front paw stars and the triangular head is a star that makes up the bearís knee, and once you spot that youíve 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 Bearís 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. Thatís it! Well done! Youíve 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 itís much easier to see it as the Little Dipper. Itís not nearly as easy to see as the Big Dipper, especially if itís 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 armís 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 Earthís 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 ďLynchpinĒ 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 Dipperís pot. Your challenge, and itís 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. Youíll have a better chance of seeing them. Thatís what amateur astronomers call averted vision. Many see a little better out of the side of their eyes. Honestly, it really works!

The Greek and Roman mythology story of how the bears got into the sky is not the only version of how that happened. I know of at least a dozen other stories about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. This one is my favorite, though, and many other folks feel the same way. It involves a beautiful young woman named Callisto and her son Arcus. I have to warn mythology purists out there that I take poetic license with these stories. I like to bring them up to date a bit. I feel justified doing this because really, Is there such a thing as the ďcorrectĒ mythology?

Callisto was a beautiful young woman in her late 20ís who tragically became a widow and single mom when her husband was killed in a war. Arcus was her wonderful ten-year-old son, who really helped out his mom around the house and made life for Callisto a little easier.

Callisto worked really hard being a single mom and fortunately she had a really good job, but a mentally exhausting one. It was a good thing that Arcus was so good about helping around the house. He even fixed supper for his mom several times a week. One of the things Callisto really, really looked forward to every Saturday morning after a long week of work was to finally get a chance to relax on a bench down on the shore of a small pond at a nearby park. Callisto absolutely loved to feed bread to the ducks. It was great therapy!

One sunny Saturday morning she was sitting on her favorite park bench making the duckies even fatter when Zeus happened to stroll by. Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus, was quite a hunk and quite a ladies man. Zeus was struck broadside by Callistoís natural beauty and slid onto the park bench next to her. Callisto was greatly taken aback by Zeus. Itís not every day you sit next to the king of the gods! Zeus gave her that million dollar smile of his and calmed Callisto down. He asked if he could help her feed the ducks. Callisto obliged and soon they were laughing and looking lovingly in each other eyes. After a little time passed Zeus slid closer to his new catch. His arm went around her shoulder and he knew how to say all the right things. He was quite the operator! He then talked her into a cup of coffee at a local bistro and sweet-talked her some more. A few days later they went to the movies and then they made plans to visit an amusement park that coming Saturday.

All of this would have been just fine but Zeus was already engaged to marry the goddess Hera. And one thing you never do is tick off Hera. She was furious when she found out about Zeusís latest love adventure. After all, she already had the flowers ordered for her wedding day and had the VFW hall reserved for the reception. Through her many spies Hera found out about Zeusís plans to visit the amusement park with his new girlfriend that coming Saturday and decided to give him a huge surprise.

Hera headed to the park very early that Saturday morning and hid in the bushes right next to the entrance of the giant rollercoaster. Later that morning Zeus and Callisto came along arm in arm. When they got close enough, Hera jumped out of the bushes, held up her magic finger, pointed it at Callisto, and turned her into a big bear. This caused quite a commotion with security. She was chased all around the park but managed to find a hole in the fence and escape into some nearby woods to live the life of a bear. Hera then dragged Zeus away by his ear.

Tragically this left Arcus without a mother as well as a father. He didnít know what happened to his mother, other than the fact that she just disappeared. Life goes on, though, and Arcus moved in with relatives and grew up to become, of all things, a professional game hunter.

One day Arcus was at the edge of the woods with his bow and arrow. The bear stakeout went on all day. Finally, in the early evening, a giant female bear sauntered her way into the clearing. Of course you know who that bear really is, or we wouldnít have much of story here. Arcus had no idea that the bear he wanted to shoot was actually his mom. Talk about a Greek tragedy! As luck would have it, Zeus was taking a stroll through the woods at that same time and runs into this scene. He recognized that bear as Callisto from that ugly Saturday morning years earlier and also recognized Arcus as a grown man. He saw what was about to happen and he had to stop it! He tried to convince Arcus that the bear was really his transformed mother. Arcus had a hard time swallowing that and re-aimed the arrow at his mom. As much of scoundrel as he was, Zeus couldnít let this happen, so out of desperation, just before the arrow flies, the king of the gods takes his magic finger, points it at Arcus and turns him into a little bear. Once this happens Arcus recognizes his mother and they give each other bear hugs.

While all this is going on, Hera is watching from Mount Olympus through high powered binoculars. She was still pretty ticked off about Zeusís philandering. She charged to the scene and Zeus sees her coming with fire in her eyes. He figures that sheís so ticked off that sheís probably going to kill him and the bears, so he decided heíd better diffuse the situation a bit and get rid of his four legged friends. So Zeus reached down and grabbed both bears by the tail and with all his godly strength, swung them around by their tails faster and faster. With everything he had he threw the bears toward the northern sky by their tails, where to this day and night theyíre safe from Heraís temper. So why are the tails of the Big and Little Bear so long as you gaze upon them tonight? Hey, your tail would be stretched out like that too if someone used it to throw you into the sky!

I hope you enjoyed this tale of the tails as much as I love telling it!

Diagram of URSA MAJOR AND MINOR...Click here