Ursa Major

Position in the Sky

Named Stars

Messier Objects

(It is suspected that the galaxy that Messier recorded as M102 is actually M101)

The constellation Ursa Major contains the group of stars commonly called the Big Dipper. The handle of the Dipper is the Great Bear's tail and the Dipper's cup is the Bear's flank. The Big Dipper is not a constellation itself, but an asterism, which is a distinctive group of stars. Another famous asterism is the Little Dipper in the constellation Ursa Minor.

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you can use the Big Dipper to find all sorts of important stars:

According to some Native American legends, the bowl of the Big Dipper is a giant bear and the stars of the handle are three warriors chasing it. The constellation is low in the sky in autumn evening sky, so it was said that the hunters had injured the bear and its blood caused the trees to change color to red.

Although the whole of Ursa Major is difficult to see without very dark skies, the Big Dipper is one of the most recognizable patterns in the northern sky. In other cultures it was identified as a wagon or cart, a plow, a bull's thigh, and (to the Chinese) the government.

The Big Dipper was also a very important part of the Underground Railroad which helped slaves escape from the South before the Civil War. There were songs spread among the slave population which included references to the "Drinking Gourd." The songs said to follow it to get to a better life. This veiled message for the slaves to flee northward was passed along in the form of songs since a large fraction of the slave population was illiterate.

Check out the Ursa Major page which is part of the Texas Astronomical Society's Constellation of the Month Series.

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