Gauging the sky with the Great Dippers

February 7th, 2019 | by sbieger |

This time of year is a great time to reconnect with The Big Dipper in Ursa Major and it’s cousin the Little Dipper, in Ursa Minor. Even though Daylight Savings Time is going push dusk well into the evening, you will still be able to follow these great asterisms into early night as they climb over the trees.

As twilight progresses after sunset, the individual stars of the celestial bears gradually come into view. The brighter stars appear first of course, but the main stars in the Big Dipper are within a fairly small range of magnitude - about 1.8 down to about 2.4. In order of magnitude, you have Dubhe, Alioth, Alkaid, Mizor, Merak, Phecda. Megrez, where the handle connects to the bowl is 3.3 magnitude, but still bright enough to catch in suburban skies.

If you can see all of the Big Dipper, then you should be able to easily see Polaris at the end of the Little Dipper. It’s the brightest star in the constellation. You will also be able to see the end of the bowl of the dipper and the next brightest stars Kochab and Pherkad. The remaining stars are dimmer than 4.3 magnitude so they are much dimmer than most suburban nights will allow. But you never know your luck!

If you create a chart with these two constellations and write in the magnitudes, you will have a very useful reference to use to gauge the sky. Wikipedia has good information on all the constellations and the Celestial Bears are no exception. Follow the links below to get a lists of these stars with their magnitudes and charts that you can print to make a field reference - Big Dipper & Little Dipper. As with all the Wikipedia constellations pages, there’s also a lot of detail on the mythology and star lore of the heavens.

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