When you look to the northeast early on a February evening do you see this:
or maybe this:
or perhaps this?
It all depends, of course, on your imagination, but for me I see something like the last image. Even that doesn’t quite capture what my imagination wants to do with these stars. What I see is a huge and rather grumpy bear, emerging from his cave a bit early after hibernating through a few rough months, and now he’s stretching – and clawing – his way up my sky, and he is magnificent!
But I admit, for years it wasn’t that way. I saw instead what I suspect many people see – the Big Dipper rising. And I knew, sort of vaguely, that this asterism – one of the most familiar in the world – was a major portion of the constellation of the Great Bear, Ursa Major. But really, large as the Dipper is, it’s just the hind quarter of the Big Bear, which is really large, and when I finally took the time to trace out his head and ears and front and rear paws, he quickly became one of my favorite constellations – one of the rare ones like Orion and Scorpius that really look like what they depict. And funny – I can’t explain why, but I seldom see it as a bear except at this time of year when it is rising. Then it seems to dominate my northern sky and my imagination.
Oh – did I say it looks like a bear? No – I should have said it looks like a bear no one has seen except in the sky – a bear with a long tail! I don’t know why that is. I assume it is because of the second depiction, which is how Johann Bayer pictured the Great Bear in his “Uranometria,” a breakthrough star atlas published in 1603. Bayer was a lawyer, not a hunter. Maybe he had never seen a bear?
The first depiction, a Stellarium screenshot, is the best one to use as a guide for finding the correct stars. Besides the Dipper stars, there are a dozen more that trace out his main features, and all of these are either third magnitude, or on the brighter side of fourth magnitude – that is between 3.5 and 4, so they should be visible from most locations – assuming, of course, you are in mid-northern latitudes. The chart that follows gives a view of the Bear in context with the rest of the northern sky in February.
About one hour after sunset, look north and you should see a sky similar to the one shown in our chart . The height of Polaris, the North Star, will be the same as your latitude. Polaris stays put. Everything else appears to rotate about it, so our view of all else changes in the course of the evening – and from night to night. It’s a good idea to check the north sky every time you observe to get a sense of how things are changing and to orient yourself. Notice that the “W” now looks more like an “M” as it starts to roll on down into the northwest.
- Click image for larger view. (Chart derived from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)
- Click here to download a printer-friendly image of the above chart.