The Great Bear


The Big Dipper needs no introduction – yet it crossed my mind, this celestial constant might deserve a little ponder. Often mistaken for a constellation, the seven stars – Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe – form an Asterism, or subset of stars within a constellation. in this case Ursa Major – the Great Bear.

In November, the Great Bear descends to the lowest point along northern hemisphere horizons. Micmac people of southeast Canada saw this as a sign “earthly” bears went into hibernation, and tree sap returned to the “womb of creation”. Ursa Major appears to touch the earth, winter takes full command. The great bear sleeps, her extremities falling below the horizon yet the Big Dipper manages to hover above the edge of perception.

The Big Dipper doesn’t come and go with seasons, it’s circumpolar, meaning it lies in the same direction as the celestial north pole.  A line drawn outwards from the pole would pass  practically through the Dipper, and intersect with Polaris (the North Star). Earth rotates on its axis around Polaris, stars that are circumpolar to the north pole travel in tight circles around Polaris, therefore visible all year, albeit with a few sways and dips. If the Big Dipper was a clock moving once around Polaris every 24 hours –  the “bowl” would always face Polaris – at 6 o’clock it would appear flat, 3 o’clock standing on the handle, 12 0’clock upside down, and 9 o’clock standing on the bowl.

Lay eyes on the Big Dipper, finding Polaris becomes a simple matter of locating the two outermost stars of the bowl (farthest from the handle) – draw an imaginary line up and beyond for roughly 5 times the depth of the bowl – voila, the North Star.

Think of the Big Dipper as a celestial guide – take comfort in understanding it will never allow you to loose your way. If you see it, you can find north. You don’t need to panic if your GPS craps out – celestial navigation won’t let you down.

http://www.theskyscrapers.org/getting-to-know-the-big-dipper

Image Credit: AlltheSky.com

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Polaris Dippers


Asking people to “look at the damn sky” isn’t much good if they don’t know what they’re looking at. It’s easy to assume everyone can find the big dipper or locate the North Star. In the spirit of “baby steps” – everything you ever needed to know about finding the “dippers” and locating Polaris, the North Star.

The Big Dipper is always found in the north sky – in spring and summer, high in the sky – fall and winter, close to the horizon. Made up of seven stars forming a bowl and handle, the two outside stars of the bowl are Dubhe and Marek –   the “pointer stars” leading to Polaris and the Little Dipper.  Follow them in a straight line and Polaris is always there – a cosmic anchor for “dippers”  making a complete circle of the north star every 23 hours and 56 minutes.

No matter what time of year you look, the two outer stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl always point to Polaris.

http://earthsky.org/favorite-star-patterns/big-and-little-dippers-highlight-northern-sky?utm_source=EarthSky+News&utm_campaign=0a997ec4e9-EarthSky_News&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c643945d79-0a997ec4e9-393970565

Polaris may not be the brightest star in the sky – ranking 50th is inconsequential to a stellar constant above the “celestial north pole”. A star of many names; pole, north, steadfast, lodestar, guiding; a fixed point in the sky responsible for navigation of the ancient world. A gift of cosmic confidence powerful enough to sail into the unknown, the only GPS northern hemisphere travellers needed to find their way home. A beacon of hope for American slaves heading north to freedom – and once you know how to find it, a way back to the car when you’re lost in the woods.

Lost in the Woods


Imagine yourself lost in the woods without a compass or GPS. An accurate sense of direction could save your bacon; so which way is north or south? In the Northern Hemisphere the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. At noon the sun will appear in the middle of the horizon and directly south. Walk facing the sun and you will be heading south, sun at your back sees you trudging north. For the Southern Hemisphere simply reverse the process.

Not noon, don’t know the correct time – here’s another method. Find a stick about a metre long, drive it straight up into the ground of a sunny spot. Mark the end of the shadow it casts with a rock. This will be west. Wait about 15 minutes then mark the end of the cast shadow with another rock. This will be east. Draw a line between the two points for your east/west position and another at a 90 degree angle for your north/south line.

No sun? Look for moss on trees – moss on the southern side is usually greener and thicker. Ants also build their hills on the warmer southern side of trees or hills,just  as snow melts faster on southern exposures.

What if night has fallen? If the moon rises shortly before sunset the bright side will face west. If it rises much later around midnight, the brightly illuminated side faces east. If you can’t see the moon but the sky is clear enough to find stars, look for the Big Dipper, next find the Little Dipper and draw an imaginary line between the two brightest stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper to the brightest star in the handle of the Little Dipper. This should take your eye to Polaris or the North Star; the bright middle star in the constellation Cassiopeia.

I’ve only ever been lost once, and that was in a department store when I was four. If I ever find myself lost in the woods – at least I’ll be able to find my direction home.

http://adventure.howstuffworks.com/survival/wilderness/true-north.htm

What Is It About Orion?


With the exception of our moon, and perhaps the Big Dipper, I would bet that more people could locate Orion’s belt over any other feature in the night sky.  Bright and distinctive, Orion jumps out of the night; familiar and instantly recognizable,  a mystery despite its shining prominence.

In Greek mythology Orion was known as The Hunter. A giant, who hunted with an immense bronze club. His father was Poseidon,  who is said to have taught Orion to walk on water. Several accounts of Orion’s demise exist – in one he was slain by the sting of a scorpion, in another Artemis the Goddess of the moon and hunting fell in love with him. Her twin brother Apollo, enraged because love made her forget to light up the night sky, convinced her to shoot an arrow at what appeared to be a wave in the sea. Not knowing it was Orion out for a swim, the grief stricken Artemis put Orion’s body in the night sky to gaze at for all eternity.

Ancient Egyptians believed their Gods, Isis and Osiris came from the belt stars of Orion. They also believed that it was the place their pharaohs would travel to upon their deaths.

There isn’t a corner of the ancient world untouched by Orion; an integral part of creation myth from Africa, Europe, China, South America, to the American south west.

I’m pondering the universal fixation on a single nebula. The great pyramids of the Giza Plateau, Teotihuacan in Mexico, Karnak, Nabta Playa, Thornborough Henges, Hopi villages – all aligned with the constellation Orion. Ancient civilizations, worlds apart, yet united in a single belief that life originated within Orion.