Every February we come face to face with Ursa Major the Great Bear. He's a friendly bruin, but on these biting nights you'll need to dress warmly to see him. Although a little early for real bears to come out of hibernation, this Ursa pokes his nose up in the northeastern sky as soon as it gets dark. By 8 p.m. he stands on his tail, a trick that to my knowledge only celestial bears are capable of.

This is a time exposure photo of the same area shown in the map above. At left, the band of the Milky Way is visible across Cassiopeia. The horizon glow is light pollution. (Bob King)
This is a time exposure photo of the same area shown in the map above. At left, the band of the Milky Way is visible across Cassiopeia. The horizon glow is light pollution. (Bob King)

The Great Bear is the third largest constellation after Hydra the Water Snake and Virgo the Virgin. Most people can find the seven bright stars that outline the ladle-like Big Dipper, a name popular in the U.S. and Canada. But since it's only a part of Ursa Major the Dipper isn't an official constellation but instead an asterism, an easily-recognizable pattern of bright stars.

In the UK and Ireland, folks call the same asterism the Plow (spelled Plough). Germans envision a Großer Wagon (Great Wagon), while the Dutch mix gastronomy with astronomy and call it the Saucepan. Other cultures arrange the seven stars into a carriage, ladle or butcher's cleaver. Some Native American tribes saw the bucket as a bear with three hunters (the handle) in pursuit.

The Big Dipper is the brightest part of Ursa Major the Great Bear. Pairs of stars in the bear's legs do double-duty as an Arabic star pattern called the Three Leaps of the Gazelle, a delightful asterism not far from the Dipper. (Stellarium)
The Big Dipper is the brightest part of Ursa Major the Great Bear. Pairs of stars in the bear's legs do double-duty as an Arabic star pattern called the Three Leaps of the Gazelle, a delightful asterism not far from the Dipper. (Stellarium)

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The Big Dipper is easy to spot because its stars are bright, and it's visible during much of the year from mid-northern latitudes.. In fact, the Dipper never dips below the horizon from north of 40° N latitude. But even from places like northern Minnesota and Maine, where it's visible year round, it "rides low" in the northern sky from late fall through early winter, often hidden by trees.

Star brightness is measured with the magnitude scale invented a couple thousand years ago by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus and later refined. The sun tops out at magnitude –27 while the faintest objects visible with the Hubble are magnitude 31. Bob King
Star brightness is measured with the magnitude scale invented a couple thousand years ago by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus and later refined. The sun tops out at magnitude –27 while the faintest objects visible with the Hubble are magnitude 31. Bob King

The Dipper stars all shine around second magnitude on a scale where first magnitude (and negative magnitudes) are at the bright end, and 6th magnitude marks the naked-eye limit. Second magnitude stars are easily visible even from suburban areas. A 6-inch basic telescope can reach down to magnitude 13, revealing more than 15 million more stars than you can see with the unaided eye. The Hubble Space Telescope digs way deeper to 31st magnitude.

Most of the rest of the Great Bear is made up of magnitude 3 and a few magnitude 4 stars. Being fainter, you'll need darker, though not pristine, skies to see them. With the moon scarce for another week or so, I encourage you to go out around 8 o'clock or later and face northeast. Use the Big Dipper to guide you to the lesser suns that trace his neck, face, legs and feet. I like the feet and tail best since they most closely resemble what they represent.

I'm a big fan of gummy bears, too. Bears are also fond of sweets. (Bob King)
I'm a big fan of gummy bears, too. Bears are also fond of sweets. (Bob King)

Once you see the entirety of Ursa Major you'll be struck by his unusually long tail. To my eye the constellation looks more like a fox or, dare I say a skunk, than a bear. What you will see is all part of the pleasure of constellation-finding.

"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.