1a. Celest. Sphere
1b. Pole Star
2. The Ecliptic
2a. The Sundial
3. The Seasons
4. The Moon (1)
4a. The Moon (2)
4b. Moon Libration
6. The Calendar
The Big DipperThe Big Dipper consists of 7 bright stars, forming a dipper, a small pot with a long handle. In England it is often called "the plough" (spelled "plow" in the US), and fugitive slaves before the Civil War knew it as "the drinking gourd", a signpost in the sky pointing the way north to safety, to Canada where slavery was outlawed. Astronomers name it "Ursa Major," Latin for "the big she-bear," and some other languages also refer to it as the Big Bear. In Greek, bear is "Arktos", and hence the far-north region where this constellation is usually overhead became known as "the Arctic."
When the territory of Alaska in 1926 decided to create a flag of its own, it asked citizens to submit proposed designs for the new flag. The winning design was that of Benny Benson, age 13, and is reproduced on the right (more about him--see below). It shows the 7 stars of the Big Dipper and Polaris, the north star. When Alaska became a state, this became the state flag, and Alaska's Flag, a song about it by Marie Drake, was chosen as the state song. For more details, click here.
The flag also shows how the north star can be found. Imagine a line connecting the two stars at the front of the "dipper", continue it on the side where the dipper is "open" to a distance 5 times that between the two stars (the flag shortens this a bit!), and you will arrive at (or very close to) the pole star. Because of their role in locating Polaris, these two stars are often called "the guides." And by the way--the last-but-one star in the handle of the "dipper", named Mizar by Arab astronomers, is a double star, whose components are readily separated by binoculars--or, some say, by very sharp eyes during good viewing conditions.|
CassiopeiaCassiopeia was a queen in Greek mythology, and the constellation named for her is shaped like the letter W. Polaris is above the first "V" of this letter. If you draw a line dividing the angle of that "V" in half and continue along it, you will reach the vicinity of Polaris.
The name of Cassiopeia's husband, King Cepheus, goes with a nearby constellation, above the other "V" (the brighter one), but Cepheus is nowhere as striking as Cassiopeia. Her daughter Andromeda has another constellation, framed by a big undistinguished rectangle of four stars. An unremarkable constellation to the eye--but it contains a large galaxy, our nearest neighbor in space (not counting two dwarf galaxies in the southern sky), one which seems to resemble ours in size and shape.
Ursa Minor, the "Small Bear" or "Little Dipper" is a constellation somewhat resembling the Big Dipper, and Polaris is the last star in its tail. The "dipper" itself faces the tail of the Big Dipper, so that the two "tails" (or "handles") point in opposite directions. The two front stars of the "little dipper" (quite smaller and more square than the big one) are fairly bright, but other stars are rather dim and require good eyes and a dark sky.
Further ExplorationBenny Benson was of mixed Swedish-Alutiiq parentage and grew up in the Aleut islands. He was placed in the Jesse-Lee Memorial Home for Orphans in Unalaska, Aleut islands, and later moved to Seward, Alaska, where he was attending the 7th grade when he proposed his flag design. He is honored with a monument at the end of 3rd Ave. in Seward.
Later Benny became an airplane mechanic and lived on Kodiak. Throughout his life he made miniature Alaska flags and some are displayed in various public places. For more:
Questions from Users: About the stars of the Big Dipper
*** Does anything mark the southern pole of the sky?.
*** Is the correct term "constellation" or "asterism"?.
*** Is the Big Dipper visible from Viet Nam?
*** The constellation Cassiopeia
*** Does the Southern Sky have a Pole Star?
*** How far to the Pole Star?
Next Stop: #2 The Path of the Sun, the Ecliptic
Timeline Glossary Back to the Master List
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: stargaze("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated: 23 April 2008