Use the Big Dipper to find the North Star

Tonight’s chart shows Polaris and the Big and Little Dippers for a September evening. You can use the Big Dipper to find Polaris, which is also known as the North Star. Notice that a line from the two outermost stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper points to Polaris. And notice that Polaris marks the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.

Large celestial clock

The northern sky is a large celestial clock, with Polaris at its center. The hour hand is a line drawn through Dubhe and Merak, the two pointer stars of the Big Dipper. Because the stars make a full circle in 23 hours 56 minutes instead of exactly 24 hours, this star clock is not exactly the same as the one on the wall, but with a little practice you can learn to read it well.

The Big Dipper swings full circle – 360 degrees – around Polaris in about 23 hours and 56 minutes. In 24 hours, the Big Dipper actually swings more than a full circle, or 361 degrees. Does that make a difference? Yes! It means that – if you look at the same time each evening – the Big Dipper will appear just a little bit lower in the northwestern evening sky.

Diagram: White sky with four black Big Dippers in a circle around Polaris.
If you’re in the northern U.S., Canada or at a similar latitude, the Big Dipper is circumpolar for you, always above the horizon. Image via

A month from now at mid-evening, the Big Dipper will be noticeably lower in the northwest. It’ll be actually beneath the horizon as seen from the southern latitudes in the United States. The Big Dipper is circumpolar, or always above the northern horizon, as seen from the northern U.S., Canada and similar northern latitudes.

Star lore

The constant motion from night to night of these stars circling Polaris is a bit like a bear circling its prey, looking for a way to attack. Several ancient cultures from the Greeks and Romans to the Mi’kmaq Indians likened these stars to a bear.

In Greek mythology, the Big Dipper asterism represents the hindquarters and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The Mi’kmaq saw the three stars of the Big Dipper handle as hunters chasing the bear.

Watch the Big and Little Dippers circle around Polaris tonight!

Bottom line: To locate Polaris, the North Star, just draw a line between the two outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper.

The Big and Little Dippers: All you need to know

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September 2, 2021

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