In last month’s blog, we discussed some of the constellations that stand out in the spring: Leo the Lion, Cancer the Crab, and Coma Berenices (the hair of Queen Berenice of Egypt).
This month, we will focus on two of the best-known constellations, as well as one of the longest, visible in the night sky: Ursa Major, Ursa Major (Ursa Major) and Ursa Minor, Ursa Minor (Ursa Minor).
The Big Dipper (Ursa Major)
Although many people know it simply as “the Big Dipper” (think: dipper), this constellation is often associated with bears.
According to Haudenosaunee tradition, the four stars of the rectangle are in the shape of a bear, while the other three stars represent three hunters actively participating in the hunt. The first hunter, closest to the bear, is Robin (a completely black bird). The next star/hunter is Chickadee, and the hunter/star furthest from the bear is Moosebird.
The hunters’ pursuit is evident in the movement of the constellations through the seasons (all stars appear to rotate clockwise around Polaris, the North Star).
The trio chases the bear from spring to fall, and the bear constantly outruns the hunters. However, in the fall, the tired bear stops and gets up to fight the hunters. At that moment, Robin shoots an arrow at the bear and wounds it. The bear’s blood falls on the trees, which explains why they change color in autumn. Likewise, the bear’s blood also completely covers Robin. While Robin does his best to wash the blood off her, a red stripe remains permanently on her abdomen, which explains why today’s robins have red breasts.
Classical mythology also sees this constellation as a bear, which explains the name Great Bear or “Big Bear.” The story of the Big Dipper comes from the story of Callisto and Arcus. Callisto was transformed into a bear by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera, and she was nearly killed by her son Arcus, who did not recognize her mother in bear form. Just when he was about to pierce Callisto, Zeus took pity on the situation and transformed mother and son into two constellations: the “Ursa Major” (Ursa Major) and the “Ursa Minor” (Ursa Minor).
In our light-polluted skies, it’s difficult to see all the faint stars that make up the body of the Big Dipper. However, we can see the enormous tail and midsection of the bear forming what we know as the “Big Dipper.” It is amusing to note that the most prominent feature of the Big Dipper, its long tail, is almost completely absent in the bears that roam our wilds today.
Finding North from Ursa Major
Step: 1 – Find the Big Dipper
To find the Big Dipper, try to find the four stars in a rectangle (which form the bowl of the dipper/body of the bear) and then try to find three stars in a smooth triangle to the left of the bowl (which form the handle of the dipper) .
Step: 2 – Find the indicator stars
Find the two stars on the bowl that are opposite where the handle is located. These two stars, “Dubhe” and “Merak”, are known as the “Leading Stars”.
Step: 3 – Find Polaris, the North Star
Using the distance between the indicator stars as a guide and following their direction to a point about halfway in the sky, move your gaze approximately five times the distance between the indicator stars. Now you should be looking at Polaris, the North Star.
Step: 4 – Find North
Once you’ve found Polaris, simply follow a line directly to the ground and it will be north. Because these constellations never set from Ontario (they are always visible, no matter what time of night or day of the year), you can use this ability to find north with a fairly high degree of accuracy.
Draco the Dragon
The last of the constellations that we will see is the constellation of Draco the Dragon.
In Greek mythology, Draco is the dragon Ladon who is tasked by Hera to protect her apple trees. As one of his 12 labors, Hercules had to retrieve some of the apples from the tree and kill the dragon. Today, the constellation Draco occupies a prominent place among the northern stars, and the constellation Hercules (discussed in a future edition) lies adjacent to its head.
Thuban (the ancient pole star)
One of Draco’s brightest stars, Thuban, lies between the bowl of Ursa Minor and the stars Mizar and Alcor. Because the Earth’s poles move slowly over many thousands of years (we call this a procession), Thuban and not Polaris was actually the North Star between about 4000 and 2000 BC! Many of the Egyptian pyramids were aligned in such a way that one passageway was aligned with Thuban, the North Star!
For more stories from our stars, check out our other featured constellations.