Glossary term: Big Dipper

Description: The Big Dipper is a well-known star pattern (or asterism, to use the technical term) which is part of the constellation Ursa Major in the northern sky. It consists of eight stars: Alkaid, Mizar/Alcor, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe (Mizar/Alcor is a double star). The end two stars in the bowl of the Dipper can be used to locate the North Star (Polaris). The fact that the eight stars are similar in brightness makes the Big Dipper especially notable (though Megrez and Alcor are slightly fainter than the others) and it has been known under various names in many cultures. The five middle stars are part of a group of stars moving through space together (the Ursa Majoris Moving Group). Dubhe is reddish; the other seven stars are white.

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Term and definition status: This term and its definition have been approved by a research astronomer and a teacher

The OAE Multilingual Glossary is a project of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE) in collaboration with the IAU Office of Astronomy Outreach (OAO). The terms and definitions were chosen, written and reviewed by a collective effort from the OAE, the OAE Centers and Nodes, the OAE National Astronomy Education Coordinators (NAECs) and other volunteers. You can find a full list of credits here. All glossary terms and their definitions are released under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 license and should be credited to "IAU OAE".

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In a field of countless stars dotted by clouds and reflected in water, the three stars of Orion’s belt poke above the horizon

Constellations from the World

Caption: Third place in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Time lapses of celestial patterns.   This video tries to cover a huge variety of phenomena in the night sky from different locations — Iceland and China — and is designed like a theatre play, starring mother nature herself. It starts with a blue twilight sky that dims and unveils the starry night sky on the stage with terrestrial clouds on a beautiful landscape. The impressive parts of the southern Milky Way between Scorpius and Crux, with the pointer stars Alpha and Beta Centaurus, are shown passing by majestically. The terrestrial clouds blur the stars and allow us to recognise their colours even more clearly. The first act presents the starry sky in human culture. One scene shows the Pleiades rising over the top of a hill, while a human moves hastily with a flashlight below. At the very moment that the Pleiades rises behind the hill, the beam of the flashlight hits the camera. There is some humour in this remarkable scene referencing the human relationship to the rise of the Pleiades in cultural history. The next scene shows The Big Dipper, Ursa Major, as a typical northern constellation, with an arch of aurora below it. The aurora evolves and moves but does not change much fundamentally. In northern human cultures, aurorae were often interpreted as the ghosts of ancestors, but this play does not spend any time on human beliefs, instead moving the view southwards in the subsequent scenes. First we see some stars rising shortly before sunrise. The lightcone of Zodiacal light appears in Gemini/Taurus and the horizon gets brighter. In the next scene, at about 1 minute and 13 seconds, we see Orion setting over water, so that the water surface mirrors the celestial scene. Some clouds crossing the image prove that the videos were really taken on our beautiful planet, and, since Orion’s shoulder and foot are seen to set almost simultaneously, this sequence must have been captured almost at the equator. In this area, the bright stars of Orion look like a huge butterfly, with Orion’s Belt forming the body, and the quadrilateral of four bright stars interpreted as the wings. As in a real theatre, we now see a curtain before the next act of the heavenly play, an aurora curtain. The next act presents several bright stars in original scenes: the Chinese asterisms of The Tail (of the Azure Dragon), the Winnowing Basket and the Southern Dipper, which are seen in the modern constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius. The striking shape of Corona Borealis that has been recognised as an asterism in many cultures all over the globe, is also shown, as are some planets, the stars Vega and Deneb with adjacent areas, Altair, the Milky Way, and the characteristic W shape of Cassiopeia that has also been an asterism for many cultures on Earth. The outro presents two more scenes with a smooth and silent night sky.
Credit: Stephanie Ye Ziyi/IAU OAE

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The ladle-shaped Big Dipper tilted by 135 degrees.

Big Dipper

Caption: Honourable mention in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Still images of celestial patterns.   This photograph, taken in Udupi, India, in May 2021, shows the seven brightest stars in the constellation Ursa Major. This asterism was seen as a Wagon by the Babylonians, which probably led to the alternative interpretation of the Chariot in the didactic poem of the Greek poet Aratus. The normal Greek interpretation is the constellation of the Great She-Bear, which also includes many fainter stars in a much broader area of the sky. In ancient Egypt, these seven stars form the figure of the Bull’s Foreleg or the Bull’s Thigh. It is considered a part of the leg of the god Seth, who was considered the evil one of two brothers; the god Osiris (who is sometimes considered the first king of Egypt) was murdered by his brother Seth. Their loving sister put together the scattered pieces of the corpse and reanimated him. In order to prevent Seth from further evil deeds, this leg was attached to a dowel in the sky. These seven bright stars were considered The Northern Dipper, containing the asterism of the Judges by the nobility in Ancient China. In French and in Dutch, it is called a Saucepan, in German a Chariot and in British English a Plough. The commonly known term “Big Dipper” is American English. They are considered the male figure who is the father of all stars and humans in the North American Navajo saga, where he is said to be the husband of a mother goddess seen in Cassiopeia. Similarly, it is designated the Man’s Cart in Norse mythology with the Woman’s Cart in Ursa Minor. In some other northern cultures, the group is interpreted as an Elk, for instance for the Inuits and Siberians, while the Sami see the Bow and Arrow of Favdna here. In contrast, not all cultures in the southern hemisphere named it because it is always either close to the horizon or invisible. For instance, the Brazilian Tucano people called it the Large Anus of the Snake and in Samoa it forms part of the Heirloom Warclub. The Hawaiian people also used the asterism for navigation and called it The Seven, while the Macedonian tradition interpreted it as Seven Thieves. In Italian star lore, it is either called The Seven Oxen (Rome) or The Seven Brothers (Sardinia). Similarly, the Mongolian traditions speak of Seven Buddahs while the Indians call it the Seven Sages.
Credit: Arya Anthony/IAU OAE

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The ladle-shaped Big Dipper with the orange star Arcturus to its left. Right is the diffuse disk-shaped Andromeda galaxy

Dreamlike Starry Sky and Airglow

Caption: Winner in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Still images of celestial patterns.   This spectacular image shows a range of prominent constellations visible in the night sky over the desert of inner Mongolia, taken in August 2019. The yellowish star in the bottom left side is Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and the brightest in the constellation Boötes. The handle of the Big Dipper points towards this bright star and the Dipper is also visible above Boötes. The Northern Dipper (Bei Dou) is a traditional Chinese constellation. It is considered a chariot in which the Judges for Nobility are sitting. Arcturus is considered a single-star asterism, named the Horn, which forms part of the Chinese super-constellation for the spring, the Azure Dragon of the East. The front of the Northern Dipper points towards the star at the top of the photograph which is now called Polaris, the northern Pole Star. In ancient China, there was no bright star at the pole, so the stars in the nearest vicinity of the pole were considered to belong to the emperor and his family in the constellation the Purple Forbidden Palace. At least as early as mediaeval times, Polaris was considered part of the constellation of the Great Emperor of Heaven. Corona Borealis is also visible in the top right corner of this image, although not in its completeness. It is called the Coiled Thong in China. With its characteristic semi-circular shape, this is one of the smaller constellations of the 88 modern ones, but also can be traced back at least three or four millennia through the Roman “Crown”, the Greek wedding “Wreath”, and the Babylonian “Asterism of Dignity”. The modern name literally means “Northern Crown” in Latin. At the upper-right edge of the image, we find the part of the modern constellation Cassiopeia that is considered the Flying Corridor and an Auxiliary Road in ancient China. The W-shape of Cassiopeia is cut off by the edge of the photograph but the constellations to its south and southeast, Andromeda and Perseus, are clearly recognisable. Prominently we see the Andromeda galaxy, the most distant object that is visible to the unaided eye. It is located at the outermost outliers of the band of the Milky Way, which could explain why it has not been mentioned explicitly in ancient star catalogues, as it was mistakenly thought to be part of the Milky Way. The photograph also shows clearly reddish parts of the Milky Way that don’t appear bright to the naked eye, and also open clusters that are formed from the same molecular cloud, i.e., groups of stars with similar ages. This region is part of many big and small asterisms in traditional Chinese uranology.
Credit: Likai Lin/IAU OAE

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The Big Dipper, seven bright stars shaped like a ladle, viewed in 4 seasons, each time at a different angle

Big Dipper in Four Seasons

Caption: Winner in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Still images of celestial patterns.   As Earth moves around the Sun, the positions of the stars in the night sky appear to change over the course of the year. This is well exemplified in this mosaic, with images taken in all four seasons throughout 2020 in the region of Veneto, Italy, showing the apparent motion of the Ursa Minor and Ursa Major constellations. Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, is a constellation of the northern hemisphere, and it contains the northern celestial pole, in our current epoch marked by a bright star called Polaris or the Pole Star. For centuries Polaris has been used for navigation in the northern hemisphere, as it has been almost at the exact pole position for roughly 200 years. In the Middle Ages and antiquity, there was no pole star; the celestial north pole lay in a dark region and the Greeks considered the “Little She-Bear” as a companion of the “Great She-Bear”, which is more easily recognizable. The brightest stars of these constellations were alternatively also considered as chariots by the Greeks, as written in Aratus’s famous didactic poem from the 3rd century before the common era. The most famous asterism in Ursa Major, composed of seven stars, has different names across the (northern) world. While considered as a chariot by the Greeks, it is “The Northern Dipper” in China, and “The Seven Oxen” for the ancient Romans. It was also the navigational purpose that led to the name The Great She-Bear, Ursa Major; for the Greeks, travelling towards the direction of the horizon above which Ursa Major appears meant moving towards the land of the bears (northern Europe). An animal is clearly recognizable when taking into account all the fainter stars in the vicinity of the seven bright ones. They considered it a female bear because Greek mythology connects this animal with the nymph Callisto, whose story describes the initiation rituals for women. In the top left, we see an image taken on a spring evening, while the image below shows the same portion of the sky on a summer evening. Going counterclockwise, we see the sky during autumn in the bottom right image, while the top right finally shows this portion of the sky in the winter. Note that the relative positions of Ursa Minor and the Big Dipper don’t change, but all stars appear to be moved in a circle around Polaris. This star pointing due north lies at the point where Earth’s rotational axis intersects the celestial sphere. The shift of constellations throughout the year is therefore a globe-clock or a globe-calendar, used by ancient civilizations to measure the year, and to predict the changes of seasons. It helps to establish, for instance, the best time for sowing and sailing as winds change with the seasons.
Credit: Giorgia Hofer/IAU OAE

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The Big Dipper drifts lower towards the horizon on the left, on the right a comet rises in the sky.

Big Dipper and Comet Neowise C2020 F3

Caption: This time-lapse documents the trajectory of the iconic Big Dipper across three frames taken in July 2020. Captured from three locations in Italy, Tre Cime di Lavaredo Auronzo di Cadore, Monte Rite, Cibiana di Cadore, and Casera Razzo, Vigo di Cadore, this visual odyssey showcases the captivating journey of the Big Dipper with the addition of trails of stars painting a celestial canvas. It not only traces the path of this renowned asterism but also features the rare appearance of comet Neowise C/2020 F3, an extraordinary event that graced our skies during July 2020.
Credit: Giorgia Hofer/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The sky rotates around one star that appears fixed. Bubbles and swirls of green aurorae fill the foreground

The Big Dipper in the Polar Night

Caption: Step into the cosmic theatre of Iceland’s northern skies in this time-lapse where the illustrious Big Dipper commands attention, tracing an almost complete circle around Polaris — an exquisite sight that is not visible from mid-latitudes. This time-lapse, captured through fisheye lenses, reveals the timeless choreography of the Big Dipper, vividly illustrating its celestial waltz. Amidst this spectacle, the Arctic night reveals its grandeur, painting a panoramic canvas that showcases not just the celestial journey of this iconic asterism but also the ethereal dance of the Northern Lights. In this breathtaking tapestry, the Big Dipper takes centre stage against the mesmerising backdrop of the Icelandic nightscape, adorned by the vibrant hues of the Aurora Borealis.
Credit: Stephanie Ziyi Ye/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The dish of a radio telescope rotates as the Big Dipper moves in the sky behind.

The Big Dipper with the Sardinia Radio Telescope SRT

Caption: This time-lapse captures the movement of the stars alongside the majestic 64-metre Sardinia Radio Telescope (SRT) from the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), with special attention to the renowned Big Dipper against the backdrop of the celestial sphere. The camera pans as the famous asterism sinks in the sky while planes fly past and the radio telescope rotates. The harmonious interplay between the stellar pathways and the colossal dish of the radio telescope creates a mesmerising visual ode to the cosmic ballet taken in September 2019.
Credit: Antonio Finazzi/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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The Big Dipper sinks in the sky with the handle sweeping out a larger circle than the bowl of the asterism.

Big Dipper Over the Mono Lake

Caption: The Big Dipper asterism gracefully moves above the otherworldly tufa formations of Mono Lake, California. The time-lapse captures the Big Dipper’s movement across the northern horizon until its inferior conjunction. At Mono Lake’s latitude (+38°), the stars of the Big Dipper remain circumpolar, except for Alkaid. The North Star sits 38° above the horizon, just outside the field of view in the top right. The lunar illumination bathes the landscape in a soft glow, gradually fading as the Moon sets, cloaking the scene in darkness.
Credit: Fabrizio Melandri/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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Timelapses of rotating skies behind trees, telescopes, mountains and observatories

The Rotating Planet

Caption: A cosmic journey unfolds across continents in this time-lapse video which captures both iconic constellations from diverse corners of the world. Starting in China, the Big Dipper graces the night sky, a steadfast guide embedded in cultural narratives. Its luminance marks the beginning of this celestial odyssey. The two pointer stars on the end of the Big Dipper point to the North Star (Polaris) which appears to remain stationary as the sky rotates. From Nepal’s lofty peaks, the Big Dipper’s familiarity persists, a reliable fixture in the shifting panorama of the rotating planet. Moving to Chile, the Southern Cross adorns the firmament, emblematic of the southern skies. Frames from Chile showcase this constellation accompanied by the Milky Way Galaxy. In Namibia, a telescope from the H.E.S.S. Observatory appears in the video. Later, nestled beneath sheltering trees, the Big Dipper persists in its celestial prominence, appearing against a canvas of stars. Using varied techniques — fisheye lenses, static cameras, and Earth's movement-tracking — each frame unveils the Cross’s grandeur against diverse landscapes. These sequences — marked by star trails and Earth’s rotation—highlight the enduring presence of the Big Dipper and Southern Cross, bridging cultures and celestial beauty across hemispheres.
Credit: Jianfeng Dai/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)

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Related Activities

Moving constellations

Moving constellations

astroEDU educational activity (links to astroEDU website)
Description: Let's learn how stars in constellations move through time using real astronomical images.

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Tags: Software , Data analysis , stellarium , gaia , hipparcos , ursa major
Age Ranges: 10-12 , 12-14 , 14-16 , 16-19 , 19+
Education Level: Middle School , Secondary
Areas of Learning: Guided-discovery learning , Observation based , Technology-based
Costs: Free
Duration: 3 hours
Skills: Analysing and interpreting data , Asking questions , Communicating information , Developing and using models , Engaging in argument from evidence