Ursa Major (Common 10 Constellations)

I have a thing for bears.  All types and all sizes, I love them.

My husband, whom I nicknamed “Bear” 20 years ago, brought me out to “Bear Creek Cabin” for the weekend so that I could see the stars.

And I do – the stars here are diamonds spilled on velvet, so many that you feel the universe is just showing off – but no matter where I am, small town, big city, or backwoods, I can count on seeing at least one constellation:

Ursa Major (The Great Bear)


A print of Ursa Major, showing stars visible to the naked eye and those to faint to see. Provided by Sidney Hall [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Most folks know it as “the big dipper,” but, as I said, I’ve got a thing for bears.

The big dipper can be seen in the northern sky every night of the year in Virginia; it circles around the north star with its cup turned down in spring, as if it’s pouring out seeds and rain on the waiting land, turned up in fall as if it’s scooping up the harvest, and held sideways in summer and winter.

The constellation Ursa Major is larger than the seven stars of the big dipper (the big dipper is technically an “asterism” within the great bear).  The four star cup of the dipper forms the great bear’s body and its 3 star handle creates the bear’s tail.  For a full bear’s body, though, the full constellation includes several more stars forming legs and a head, for a total of 16 or 18 stars all together.


These are the visible stars of Ursa major. Image provided by By Stu10255 via Wikimedia Commons

The two stars that form the forward edge of the bear’s body or the dipper’s cup make a straight line to the last tip of the cup of the little dipper (Ursa Minor – the smaller bear) which just so happens to be the north star.


Finding Ursa Minor and the north star (Polaris) from Ursa Major. Image provided by By Bonč via Wikimedia Commons.

The big bear always helps me find my way in the night sky.  Once I’ve found it I know where to look for the north star, where to find the little bear (which is only about a quarter of the big bear’s size) and, following that same straight line across the heavens to that “W” of stars that is the constellation Cassiopeia.

You can see Ursa Major now, in December, in the northeaster sky here in Virginia around midnight.  (I don’t mind staying up late, to see it I’m on vacation!)

For more Ursa Major info, check out EarthSky and Space.

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.

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