Navigating the Night Sky
The Big Dipper is a great starting point for learning the night sky. Located near the pole of the sky, it never completely sets or dips below the horizon—it’s visible in the night sky year-round from the Western Slope!
The Big Dipper itself is not a constellation, but it resides in one called Ursa Major, the Great Bear, third largest of the 88 constellations. The name originates from the dipper-shaped pattern formed by the seven main stars in the constellation.
To locate the Big Dipper, face north and look for the seven bright stars that dominate the sky in this direction—they should be easy to find. Depending on the time of year, the pattern formed by these stars appears in a different orientation, but the shape is always the same:
On spring evenings, the dipper is upside-down, spilling its contents.
The stars of the Big Dipper are a handy guide to other stars and constellations. Using well known spots in the sky to find fainter ones is known as star hopping - think of it as an astronomical treasure hunt. One of the easiest places to start is with the two end stars that form the front of the dipper’s bowl - they point straight to Polaris, the North Star.
Next, following the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper will point to two of spring’s brightest stars, Arcturus and Spica. With a bit of practice, it’s easy to imagine lines and arcs from star to star and hop from constellations you know to those you’re still learning. For more help search Google images for "Navigating with the Big Dipper."
Learning to find your own way around the heavens will show you how the night sky changes from day to day and throughout the seasons.