Ursa Major Constellation
Ursa Major (Big Bear) is one of the best known star groupings in the sky as the big dipper (also known as the plough or the saucepan) belongs to this constellation. The Big Dipper forms the tail and the back half of the torso of the big bear. The handle of the saucepan is the tail and the pan forms half of the torso. The constellation is visible year around in the northern hemisphere and is such considered a circumpolar constellation as it appears to rotate around the north star.
Ursa Major constellation is one of the original 48 constellations listed by the Egyptian mathematician Ptolemy, who lived under Roman rule in Alexandria in the 2nd century. These constellations formed the basis for the modern list agreed by the IAU. Constellations from the southern hemisphere, unable to be seen from the Mediterranean, represent the majority of additions to the list.
As the earth moves in its orbit around the sun, each night you are looking at a different portion of the sky. When looking at stars it is important to be aware of what is within your view. Northern hemisphere stargazers can group constellations into 3 groups; circumpolar, summer and winter constellations. The circumpolar constellations are in the north sky, appear to move around the north star and are visible throughout the year. The constellations in the south sky are only visible for part of the year and are grouped as either summer or winter constellations. Each is visible from between 4 to 10 months.
It is important to be aware of the specific time of year and hour of the night when deciding what to look for. These pages below show the constellations in each group so you can find the constellations that interest you.
CIRCUMPOLAR (year around) – Ursa Major – Cassiopeia – Ursa Minor – Draco – Cepheus
WINTER – Pegasus – Pisces – Aries – Auriga – Taurus – Orion – Canis Major – Canis Minor – Gemini – Lynx – Cancer – Leo – Winter Hexagon
SUMMER – Virgo – Libra – Scorpius – Bootes – Hercules – Lyra – Ophiuchus – Sagittarius – Aquila – Cygnus – Capricornus – Aquarius
Or use this guide to easily see which constellations are easiest to find right now:
Ursa Major Quick Facts:
Symbolism: Big Bear
Neighbouring constellations: Ursa Minor*, Draco*, Bootes*, Leo (south), Lynx*
Brightest star: Alioth, 1.76 magnitude (32nd brightest star in night sky)
Stars brighter than 3 magnitude: 7
Primary stars: 16 (7 that form the big dipper/saucepan or the tail and back half of the bear, 4 for the back legs, 2 for the front legs, 2 for the upper body and 1 for the nose)
Latitude: 30 – 65 degrees north (saucepan/big dipper 50-60)
Northern Hemisphere Season: Circumpolar (year round)
*circumpolar constellations do not maintain the same coordinal direction to each other as they all rotate around the north star Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor. The direction however can always be determined from the constellation with feet of the bear always facing away from the north star.
Which months can you see Ursa Major constellation?
Ursa Major can be seen all year but can be found high in the sky at 21:00 from April to June:
- Early evening viewers (pre 21:00) can find the constellation from February in the north east sky until July in the north west sky. Ursa Major will be visible overhead from April to June.
- Mid evening viewers (21:00-23:30) can find the constellation from January in the north east sky until June in the northwest sky. Ursa Major will be visible overhead in from March to May.
- Late evening viewers (after 23:30) can find the constellation from December in the north east sky until May in the north west sky. Ursa Major will be visible overhead from January to April.
- Early morning viewers can find the constellation from November in the north east sky to February in the north west sky. Ursa Major will be visible overhead from from December to January.
As time passes the constellation will gradually appear earlier in the day with ranges below showing the window of opportunity in each month. Ursa Major sits between 30-65 degrees north latitude. Therefore, the further south your position the lower it will appear in the north sky. At its maximum range it is possible to see Ursa Major at latitudes between +90 and -20. Above latitudes of 45 degrees north the constellation remains above the horizon at all times.
Best time to see Ursa Major:
Present throughout night from February to May
Best visible at 21:00 from April to June
January: visible in the north east sky from 20:30 15 degrees above horizon. Reaches highest point at 04:00, 70 degrees above northern horizon. 60 degrees above north west horizon at 05:45 during sunrise. Making it visible the full duration of the night.
February: visible in the north east sky from 18:30 15 degrees above horizon. Reaches highest point at 02:00, 70 degrees above northern horizon. 45 degrees above north west horizon at 05:30 during sunrise. Making it visible the full duration of the night.
March: visible 30 degrees above the horizon in the north east sky from 18:30. Reaches highest point at 24:00, 70 degrees above northern horizon. 35 degrees above north west horizon at 05:00 during sunrise. Making it visible the full duration of the night.
April: visible 50 degrees above the horizon in the north east sky from 20:00. Reaches highest point at 23:00, 70 degrees above northern horizon. 20 degrees above north west horizon at 05:00 during sunrise. Making it visible the full duration of the night.
May: visible 65 degrees above the horizon in the north sky from 20:00. Reaches highest point at 21:00, 70 degrees above northern horizon. 15 degrees above north west horizon at 04:30 during sunrise. Making it visible the full duration of the night.
June: visible 60 degrees above the horizon in the north west sky from 20:30. Setting at 03:00
July: visible 45 degrees above the horizon in the north west sky from 20:30. Setting at 01:00
August: visible 30 degrees above the horizon in the north west sky from 20:00. Setting at 23:00
September: visible 20 degrees above the horizon in the north west sky from 19:30. Setting at 21:30
October: visible after rising from 03:00 in the north east sky and reaches its 30 degrees above horizon by sunrise
November: visible after rising from 24:00 in the north east sky and reaches its 50 degrees above horizon by sunrise
December: visible after rising from 22:00 in the north east sky and reaches its 70 degrees above north horizon by sunrise
Trajectory: The constellation is between 55-65 degrees north, placing it around degrees from Polaris. The constellation will rotate around the northern star maintaining its distance. As such viewers can expect it to follow an arch from the north east horizon arching across the north east sky until it reaches its peak high in the north sky, then following a parallel arch in the north west sky until it reaches near to the north west horizon. Those at very high northern hemisphere latitudes may also be able to view it cross low in the north sky to complete its rotation. Its peak trajectory in Wadi Rum is 70 degrees above the northern horizon and is viewable in the evening from April to June.
Not the right time for Ursa Major? Have a look what constellations you can see tonight.
How to find Ursa Major constellation?
How to find the Big Dipper or or to find the saucepan is the first question we need to answer as that will be how we identify the Ursa Major constellation. Fortunately it is considered an easy formation to find because its location is consistent throughout the year.
Step 1: Make sure you are familiar with what time of night the constellation will be in the sky for the time of year you are looking. Use the guide above to confirm the cycles and the appropriate area of the sky
Step 2: The constellation will always be in the north sky so orient yourself with a clear view of the sky to the north
NOTE: All 7 stars in the big dipper are among the 200 brightest visible from earth (including those in the southern hemisphere that you never see and those that pass in the day so they are all very clear
Step 3: First step is to identify the 3 brights stars that form the handle of the saucepan. They are 3 bright stars in a line for which there are not many candidates if you followed the previous steps and are looking at the right time and in the right direction.
Step 4: Once you have identified the handle it is easy to validate if you have correctly located the constellation as the pan is a rectangle extension of the handle to the west.
The big dipper is one of the main formations used to ‘point’ to constellations in the northern hemisphere and is a very helpful constellation. The asterism is used in combination with Cassiopeia. As they are on opposite sides of the north star, at least one is always visible in the northern hemisphere. The top of the pan is always pointing towards the north star.
Learn how to form the shape of Ursa Major constellation
The Big Dipper forms the tail and the back half of the torso of the big bear. These 7 stars are the brightest in the constellation and are critical reference points for identifying the others. To assist with explaining the location of the remaining stars we will confirm the name of each star.
To aid in identifying the shape of the bear it should be understood that the bear is depicted walking on all four legs like a dog. It is also convenient that in this constellations many of the distances are very similar as with the saucepan. Finally the nose and feet although less bright than the big dipper are prominent so the extremeties are easier to recognise.
Identify the 7 stars of the Big Dipper or Saucepan asterism
- Alkaid is the end of the handle and also the tip of the saucepan
- Mizar is the midpoint of the handle and the midpoint of the tail
- Alioth is the base of the handle and the base of the tail
- Megrez is the corner of the pan that attaches to the handle and the lower end of the bears back
- Phecda is the base of the pan closest to the handle and the back underside of the bear where the back legs pertrude from
- Merak is the base of the pan furthest from the handle and the mid underside of the bear
- Dubhe is the top of the pan furthest from the handle and the middle of the bears back
- The 4 stars of the pan forms the back half of the torso. These 7 stars are the brightest in the constellation and are critical reference points for identifying the others.
Finding the 9 other stars that complete the Ursa Major Constellation
Step 1: The remainder of the torso
The front part of the torso is relatively simple to identify with the pan extending out to form an elongated body.
- The upper back of the bear continues in a straight line from the top of the pan for the same distance between the initial 2 stars away from the handle
- The chest of the bear similarly continues in a straight line from the base of the pan for a similar distance.
These stars extend the existing rectangle of the pan out into a longer rectangle around double the size to represent the torso of the bear.
Step 2: The nose
- The nose is a relatively bright star and can be found by continuing on the same path as the torse forward the same distance again (half the length of torso). The nose is the tip of the head and when connected to the two nearest stars of the torso with imaginary lines represents the head
Step 3: The front legs
- To star that indicate the front leg comes away from the chest star at a 90 degree angle from the torso and head, The first star representing the knee is a similar distance as has been the case with the existing stars in the constellation
- The next star marking the foot of the bear slightly changes direction 30 degrees to the west but is again a similar distance from the knee
Step 4: The back legs
These 4 stars represent the back legs with the top part of the leg following a common path and then separating
- The back legs are long and extend down from Phecda in the direction opposite to Megrez. The first star is again a similar distance to that previously used and direction can additionally be aided as it is parallel to the front leg and perpendicular to the body
From this star the legs split
- If you continue in a straight line 3 times the previous length you will find one back foot
- the other part of the leg branches out 45 degrees southwest or in the direction opposite the handle, this leg has a knee once again using the initial distance that is consistent for this constellation.
- Continue in a similar direction and a similar distance to identify the other foot.
Ursa Major (and Big Dipper) in the Ancient World
Early cosmic hunt myths
The Big Dipper formation was a significant asterism in ancient northern hemisphere societies as it was regularly visible in the night sky and provided clear coordinal direction. Many cultures shared similar hunting myths dating back to 11000BC coinciding with the times of the earliest settled people. These stories vary slightly but all involve a human hunt where the ususally horned herbivorous animal is pursued into the night sky and becomes the big dipper component of the Ursa Major.
Greek and Roman mythology
Roman mythology borrowed the Greek myth of Ursa Major. Zeus is attracted to a young women named Callisto. Callisto has a son Arcas and Zeus’ wife Hera suspects Zeus is the father. She turns Callisto into a bear so Zeus will no longer be attracted to her. One day Callisto’s son Arcas encounters the bear who is his mother, unaware it is her, he intends to shoot her but Jupiter intervenes by transforming Arcas into a bear also. Callisto is represented by Ursa Major and Arcas by Ursa Minor.
An alternate Greek myth that gets associated with the constellations is the story of two bears who helped Zeus in his infancy. Zeus’ father Chronis (the god of time) had eaten his first 5 children due to the prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his children. Rhea Zeus’s mother acted to save Zeus and swapped him for a rock that she wrapped in a blanket and Chronis instead eat this. Zeus was then raised by nymphs, giants and other mythical beings. Later he managed to poison his father which caused him to vomit up his 5 siblings. Zeus then led a battle against his father with the support of these 5 to overthrow him as the king of the gods. In explaining the significance of the celestial bears in ancient Greece. it is said that among those who raised Zeus were 2 bears that Zeus later thanked after becoming king of the gods by throwing them among the stars by their tails that were stretched in the process.
In the Arabic world the 3 feet of the bear form their own asterism that is known as the 3 leaps of the gazelle. In Hindu cultures the big dipper is known as the seven sages. Native American cultures referenced the tail as 3 hunters pursuing the giant bear. Many other cultures simply refer to them as the 7 stars of the north sky.
Main stars of Ursa Minor
Alioth (+1.76m, 43ly, 70 suns, #32)
Alioth is from Arabic meaning the ‘fat on the tail of the sheep’. This part of the sheep meat is prized in the middle east and you may notice that local breeds have been selectively bred and have much fattier tails than other parts of the world. It is the 32nd brightest star with an apparent magnitude of +1.76. The distance from earth is 83 light years. It is 70 times the size of the sun. Alioth represents the base of the tail closest to the torso of the star in the handle closest the pan within the Big Dipper asterism.
Dubhe (+1.79m, 123ly, 300 suns. #34)
Dubhe is from Arabic meaning ‘bear’, abbreviated from the full Arabic name which translates to ‘the back of the great bear’. It is the 34th brightest star with an apparent magnitude of +1.79. The distance from earth is 123 light years. It is a double star that orbit each other. Dubhe marks the middle of the bears back as well as the top of the pan furthest the handle in the Big Dipper.
Alkaid (+1.86m, 104ly, 40 suns, #38)
Alkaid is from the Arabic for ‘the leader’ which is peculiar because it in fact follows the rest of the constellation through the sky. It is the 38th brightest star with an apparent magnitude of +1.86. The distance from earth is 104 light years. It is 40 times the size of the sun. The modern name is derived from the longer original name that translates as ‘leader of the mourning daughters’ as the 3 stars in the tail of the bear were known as the mourning daughters. Alkaid marks the tip of the bears tail or the end of the handle of the saucepan
Mizar (+2.23, 83ly, double star, #69)
Mizar is from Arabic word for ‘apron’ but is a reference to the name of one of the mourning daughters from the ancient Arabic asterism for the 3 stars in the handle of the saucepan. It is the 69th brightest star with an apparent magnitude of +2.23. The distance from earth is 83 light years. Mizar is a double star with each around 14 times the size of the sun. Mizar marks the middle star in the tail of the bear or the middle star in the handle of the saucepan.
Merak (+2.34, 80ly, 28 suns, #80)
Merak is from Arabic for ‘belly’ (of the bear). It is the 80th brightest star with an apparent magnitude of +2.34. The distance from earth is 80 light years. It is 28 times the size of the sun. Merak marks the midpoint of the underside of the bear or the base of the pan furthest from the handle.
Phecda (+2.41m, 83ly, 27 suns, #85)
Phecda is from the Arabic for ‘thigh’ (of the bear). It is the 85th brightest star with an apparent magnitude of +2.41. The distance from earth is 83 light years. It is 27 times the size of the sun. Phecda marks the back hips of the bear or the base of the saucepan closest to the handle.
Megrez (+3.32m, 80ly, 3 suns, #238)
Megrez is from the Arabic for ‘base’ (of the bears tail). It is the 238th brightest star with an apparent magnitude of 3.32. The distance from earth is 80 light years. It is 3 times the size of the sun. Clearly the faintest star in the Big Dipper, it is the only star that is above 3rd magnitude. The other six stars in the Big Dipper are the brightest in the constellation, however there are a number of stars in the representing the feet of the bear that are brighter than Megrez. Megrez is the star in the tail closest to the torso or in the Big Dipper the star in the handle closest to the pan.
Wadi Rum is one of the best locations in the world to see the full beauty of the stars. Combining high altitudes, clear skies and no light pollution. You may be surprised how many stars are visible to the naked eye. Come with us and spend a night under the stars!