The Amazing Big Dipper

Begin by using your trusty Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to follow along and identify the various sights discussed.  Most are aware that the “pointer stars” at the end of the Dipper’s bowl point right to Polaris, the North Star in Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.  Continuing that line north past the Pole brings us to the house-shaped figure Cepheus, the King hugging the horizon.  Going south in the opposite direction, the pointers lead us to the white star Regulus in Leo, the Lion with its distinctive sickle-shaped or backwards question-mark head.


Turning now to the Dipper’s handle, follow its curve down and southeastward brings us to the bright orange star Arcturus in the kite-shaped constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman.  Just to the east of it lies the small distinctive Corona Borealis, the Crown.  Continuing to follow the curve south we come to the bright bluish star Spica in Y-shaped Virgo, the Virgin. And if we were to continue still further south we would find the sail-shaped group Corvus, the Crow above the southern horizon.


Returning now to the Big Dipper’s bowl, following its top line of stars to the right (or west) we come to the bright golden star Capella in pentagon-shape Auriga, the Charioteer. Following a line diagonally (top to bottom stars) across the bowl points to the two bright stars Castor and Pollux in the Gemini, the Twins.  Just left (or east) of it lies the dim constellation of Cancer, the Crab.  Tucked under the handle looking southward are two additional dim figures—Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs and Coma Berenices, Berenice’s Hair.


We have now identified 12 constellations and 7 bright stars by simply using the Big Dipper as a pointer.  It turns out that of the 88 officially-recognized constellations covering the entire sky, all or part of 66 of them can be found using this amazing star grouping!  We will leave it to your ingenuity to find others in addition to those we have identified.


— James Mullaney

Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of 10 books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from