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Recognize the Big Dipper … and Little Dipper

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Tonight for March 9, 2015

We received a question about the Big and Little Dippers.

“How can I locate both Ursa Minor and Ursa Major? I am seeing one of them in the sky . . . but cannot tell which one and where the other one is.”

The answer is that, if you’re seeing only one dipper, it’s probably the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major. This constellation, also called the Greater Bear, contains the Big Dipper asterism that’s familiar to so many stargazers because it really does look like a dipper.

Big and Little Dippers: Noticeable in northern sky

This is a great time of year to begin looking for the Big Dipper in the evening. Here it is, on today’s chart, shown ascending in the northeast in the evening at this time of year.

Ursa Minor, the Lesser Bear, which contains the Little Dipper asterism, is much harder to see. Its stars are fainter, and the dipper shape isn’t so obvious. But the Little Dipper is easy to spot, once you realize that the North Star is the last star in its handle.

How do you find the North Star? As today’s chart shows, the two outermost stars in the Big Dipper always point to the North Star. That’s why these two stars, Dubhe and Merak, are known as “The Pointers.”