Pulling chairs up to a campfire. Talking about the day’s journey. Stirring the fire to keep warm. Looking up at the stars. These types of moments are hard to beat. Questions seem to always arise when stargazing: How old is that star? Why is that star brighter than the others? What is a constellation anyway? To answer some of those questions, let’s dive into the largest set of stars located in the constellation of Ursa Major - The Big Dipper.
History of The Big Dipper:
So, did one astronomer or scientist in particular discover the Big Dipper? The answer is no. There wasn’t one individual who is credited with actually “finding” the Big Dipper. In fact, this well-known constellation was recorded as a set of visual stars since the earliest of civilizations.
The seven stars that make up the Big Dipper are associated with many myths and legends across different cultures around the world. For example in Hindu, the Big Dipper is known as Sapta Rashi, which means the seven great stages. Stargazers often think of four of the bright stars making up the image of a bowl, with the other three creating the handle. In an Abrabian legend, the stars that make up the scoop of the big dipper represent a coffin and the other three stars above it represent the mournours following it.
Next time you are sitting in your camping chair and enjoying the night, look up in the sky, and you’ll most likely see the amazing arrangement of stars. If you are longing to see the famous stars as best you can step outside at around 9:00 pm in the month of April and you will be glad that you did. The Big Dipper, which is the third largest asterism (set of stars) in the sky, shouldn't be very hard to find. The Ursa Major constellation is best seen the majority of the year in the northern hemisphere and appears above the mid-northern latitudes.
Depending on your different journeys in various seasons throughout the year, the Big Dipper can be found in varying parts of the sky. In the spring and summer the asterism is actually higher overhead, while in the fall and winter they are closer to the horizon. Spring up and fall down!
Besides changing location in the sky, the Big Dipper will also change positions depending on the season. In the fall and in the evening the asterism rests on the horizon while in the winter nights the handle appears to be dangling from the bottom. In the spring evenings the big dipper is upside down and in the summer the bowl faces the ground.
Along with its notable position as a beautiful set of stars in the night sky, the Big Dipper also can guide us to other stars. Acting as a guide, the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle leads to Arcturus, the brightest star in the Bootes constellation. If you were to continue a line, it leads to the 17th brightest star in the night sky, Spica, as well as the brightest star in the zodiacal constellation of Virgo. When looking at the Big Dipper, the two bottom stars (Merak and Dubhe) lead to Polaris which is the North Pole Star and the top of the Little Dipper.
What Stars Make up the Big Dipper?
The first star that is part of the Big Dipper is Alioth. Alioth is the brightest star of the Ursa Major, making it the brightest in the big dipper. It is the third star in the handle and closest to the bowl. Alioth is located 86 light years from earth and is actually 102 times brighter than the sun.
Next, Dubhe is the second brightest in the Ursa Major and the 33rd brightest star in the night sky. Duhbe is located on the top right corner of the bowl, 123 light years away from the sun.
The third star in the Big Dipper is Merak which is the fifth brightest star in the Ursa Major. Merak is shockingly 270% more massive than the sun. Merak is located on the bottom right corner of the big dipper.
The next star Phecda is the sixth brightest star in the Ursa Major and is 83.2 light years away from earth. Phecda is 65 times brighter than the sun and is located on the bottom left part of the bowl.
The fifth star that helps make up the Big Dipper is Megrez. Megrez is the dimmest of the seven stars and is located around 80.5 light years away. As this star is young(300 million years) it is fast, rotating about 233km/144.7mi per second.
The next star is Mizar which is the fourth brightest star and is located 82.9 light years away. Mizar is only 33.3 times brighter than the sun and is located in the middle of the Big Dipper’s rod.
Lastly, Alkaid is the third brightest in the Ursa Major and 38th in the night sky. This star is located 103.9 light years away and is 594 times brighter than the sun.
Some of the most special moments in life are simply sitting around a fire and just soaking everything in. Gazing up at the stars and enjoying the excitement of sharing the beauty of nature with all walks of people. #EnjoyTheExploration