One of the most recognizable night sky features in the Northern Hemisphere is the group of seven stars commonly referred to in North America as the Big Dipper, so named because they resemble a ladle with a long curved handle and a deep bowl.
Many people mistakenly refer to the Big Dipper as a constellation. The Dipper is more accurately described as an asterism — a well-known grouping of stars that have not been officially classified as a constellation. In fact, the seven stars of the Big Dipper are actually part of a larger constellation known as Ursa Major, or the Big Bear.
Though the description of the larger constellation as some type of bear (or a big dog in some cultures) seems to be somewhat universal, agreement on the Big Dipper is less widespread. Most European cultures — including Irish, Scandinavian, and Slavic cultures — see the Dipper as a wagon. Other descriptions include a plow, a salmon net, a butcher’s cleaver, and even a coffin with three attendant mourners. Other cultures that describe the grouping as a dipper include China (the Northern Dipper), Malaysia (the ladle), and some African tribal cultures, which describe the stars as “the drinking gourd.”
In Canada and Northern portions of the United States, the Big Dipper is visible year round and is one of the most prominent groups of stars in the night sky.
To find the Big Dipper’s place in the sky, remember this mnemonic— “spring up and fall down.” That’s because in the spring evenings, the Big Dipper shines way up high in the sky, but in the autumn, it’s down close to the horizon.
Use The Big Dipper to Find Polaris
The Big Dipper is also useful for locating Polaris, the North Star. The two outermost stars in the bowl of the Dipper — Dubhe and Merak — point to Polaris. Just follow the line of them from the bottom of the bowl straight up and Polaris sits about the same distance from the top star as the depth of the bowl. Polaris is at the tip of the ladle of the Little Dipper.