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How to find the Little Dipper

Find the Little Dipper, using the Big Dipper as a guide.

Tonight for June 16, 2014

The Big Dipper is easy to find, but the Little Dipper isn’t. Today – how to find the Little Dipper using the Big Dipper as a guide.

On June evenings, you can find the Big Dipper high in the north. Notice that it has two parts – a bowl and a handle. Look at the outer two stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, those stars farthest from the handle. Those stars are sometimes called “The Pointers” because they point to the North Star, also called Polaris. And Polaris is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper.

The Little Dipper is an asterism – a star pattern that is not a constellation. The Little Dipper really belongs to the constellation Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Kochab and Pherkad: Guardians of the Pole

The Big and Little Dippers are asterisms - recognizable patterns of stars - within the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.  Image via Dill Knob Observatory.

The Big and Little Dippers are asterisms – recognizable patterns of stars – within the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Image via Dill Knob Observatory.

Richard Hinkley Allen in his book STAR NAMES Their Lore and Meaning claims the Greek constellation Ursa Minor was never mentioned in the literary works of Homer (9th century B.C.) or Hesiod (8th century B.C.). That’s probably because this constellation wasn’t around at that time.

According to the Greek geographer and historian Strabo (63 B.C. to A.D. 21?) these seven stars didn’t make up Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper) until 600 B.C. or so. Before that time, this group of stars outlined the wings of the constellation Draco the Dragon.

When the seafaring Phoenicians visited the Greek philosopher Thales around 600 B.C., they showed him how to navigate by the stars. Purportedly, Thales clipped the Dragon’s wings to create a new constellation, possibly because this new way of looking at the stars enabled Greek sailors to more easily locate the north celestial pole.

In our day, Polaris closely marks the north celestial pole in the sky. However, the stars Kochab and Pherkad more closely marked the position of the north celestial pole in 600 B.C.

Bottom line: You can easily find the Big Dipper high in the north on June evenings. Use the two outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper to find Polaris, the North Star. Polaris marks the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.

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See Draco the Dragon, and a former pole star