The Big Bear, sometimes known by its traditional Latin name, Ursa Major, has made it to the big time in the high northern skies, as it does every year in the spring.
The Big Bear is one of the circumpolar constellations that are always above our northern horizon, but in the spring it’s in full celestial bloom high in the sky near the zenith.
Every twenty-four hours the Big Bear and all the rest of the constellations endlessly circle around the North Star, Polaris. Since the bear is so close to Polaris, it makes a really tight circle around the pole star, and the beast never dips below our horizon. It’s even up in our skies during the day, but we can’t see it because our closest star, the sun, washes it out.
Most people have never seen the Big Bear in its entirety, and that’s a shame, since it’s probably one of the grandest constellations in the sky.
Because of urban light pollution most people have only seen the rear end and the tail of the bear, better known as the Big Dipper. The most famous pattern of stars in our celestial theater is just the tail end of Ursa Major. The rest of the stars in the bear are considerably dimmer, but with reasonably dark skies you can bag the Big Bear without too much trouble.
This is the best time of the year to try to see the rest of the bear, since it’s riding so high. If you’re looking from an area of heavy city lighting you’re still going to have a pretty rough time, but if you’re out in the countryside, bear hunting is easy. One thing that may make it complicated, however, is that the Big Bear is upside down.
When you find that reasonably dark spot, face north. You may want to sit back on a lawn chair or a recliner if you have one, or lie on a blanket on the ground, if it’s not too wet or snowy. You’ll be a lot more comfortable that way, since the Big Bear is very high up in the northern sky. Start looking as soon as it gets dark enough. This time of year that’s about 9 p.m.
Start with the Big Dipper, which again makes up the buttocks and tail of the Big Bear. Look just to the left of it a little ways for a skinny triangle that’s supposed to outline the Bear’s head. The star at the far left end of the skinny triangle is the Bear’s nose.
Next, look for two stars right next to each other just above the triangle. They make up the Bear’s front paw. From the paw, look for a curved line of stars that lead back down to the right side of the Bear’s triangular head. You are gazing upon the Bear’s front leg.
Now look for two more stars in a close pairing a little above the pot section of the Big Dipper. That’s the back paw of the Bear. To see the rest of Bear’s rear leg, look for a crooked line of stars from the back paw to the right side of the Big Dipper’s pot (as we see it upside-down).
Hopefully this strategy will work for you, and you’ll see the Big Bear for the first time. You’ll be amazed at how truly big it really is. You might have a little trouble seeing the entire Bear early this week because of the full moon, which tends to wipe out your ability to see dimmer stars. The full moon is lovely, but it’s a light hog and an enemy of serious stargazers.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO radio in Minneapolis and author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. The Web site is members.tripod.com/everett_astronomy.