Bears come out in the spring from their long winter’s nap. Unless you’re a city dweller, you may be living in an area where you share your space with black bruins. We usually see one or two and this time a year we have to be sure the bird feeder can’t be pawed. The next clear night you might be able to see how far up one very big bear- Ursa Major the Big Bear- can reach!
The brightest stars of the Big Bear constellation are among the most recognized in the Northern Hemisphere sky. They make up the Big Dipper, and on spring evenings the Dipper is at its highest, with the "bowl" stars pointing down and the "handle" to the right.
From around +42 degrees north latitude, where I live in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Big Dipper is almost straight up at this time. The rest of the Big Bear constellation does span the zenith, the highest point on the sky, and I must crane my neck to see it all.
First Quarter Moon is this Saturday, April 21, and it reaches full phase on the 29th, so moonlight will be making it hard to trace the entire constellation, as the Moon grows in brilliance. Looking this weekend or early in the week is best, or wait till after Full Moon.
Depending on how one connects the stars with imaginary lines, the Big Dipper’s "handle" is frequently shown tracing a long tail. Although bruin are not known for long tails, many depictions of Ursa Major gives it one. This view imagines the Bg Bear moving forward, as the sky rotates from east to west.
H.A. Rey’s 1952 book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them puts the end star in the Big Dipper’s handle (known as Alkaid) as the Big Bear’s nose. Seen this way, the Big Bear is moving backwards, as it circles in the sky.
Whether the constellation drawing has the bear coming or going, they typically point out stars marking three "bear paws" that are visible. While looking at the Big Dipper nearly straight overhead in the north, turn yourself around and look high up to spot the "three paws."
Other illustrations of the constellation bear no resemblance (pun intended- you can laugh now) to a Big Bear.
Let us not forget Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. The North Star, or Polaris, makes the end of the "handle" of the Little Dipper. The Little Dipper’s proper name is otherwise known as the Little Bear.
(The "Big Dipper" and "Little Dipper," like many other popular star patterns, are not listed among the 88 officially recognized constellations. They are instead referred to as "asterisms.")
It’s easy to find the North Star. The front stars of the Big Dipper’s "bowl", point straight down to the North Star (as seen on an April evening).
While admiring the Big Dipper, stare at the middle star in the handle, second from the end. Known as Mizar, if you’re eyes are good, you should be able to see a fainter star right next to it, named Alcor. The view in a small telescope magnifying about 60X will Mizar and Alcor wide apart, and Mizar split into two stars very near each other. Mizar A and Mizar B are a true binary star system, traveling space together with bonds of gravity and we’d like to think, affection.
There’s no need to fear this Big Bear, and there’s no bird feeder constellation in the sky (maybe on purpose). Be sure to get out the next clear night and enjoy the Heaven’s nature parade!
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.