For centuries, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper have dominated our night skies and our imaginations.
They are both iconic ‘constellations’ with their own unique features and stories.
However, they are often muddled with one another. So today, I’d like to clear it all up.
What exactly differentiates the Big Dipper from the Little Dipper? How have they acquired their names? Where can you find them; we’ll be covering all.
So, let’s embark on an interstellar journey to unveil the mysteries of these two celestial marvels.
What Are The Big and Little Dipper?
The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper are not actually constellations, rather, they are asterisms – recognizable patterns of stars within constellations. In this case, both belong to the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor respectively, which translates to the ‘Big Bear’ and the ‘Little Bear’.
The Big Dipper
The Big Dipper, found in Ursa Major, is one of the most easily recognized asterisms in the night sky.
Its seven brightest stars form a ladle shape, hence the name “Dipper”.
The Big Dipper is always visible in the northern hemisphere and it can be used to locate other stars and constellations.
On the other hand, the Little Dipper, located in Ursa Minor, is less bright but equally fascinating.
Like its larger counterpart, it is made up of seven primary stars that create the shape of a smaller ladle or dipper.
At the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, you’ll find Polaris, the North Star, a pivotal navigation point for centuries.
What’s The Difference Between The Big And Little Dipper?
The key differences between the Big and Little Dipper primarily lie in their size, brightness, and position in the sky.
Size and Brightness
The Big Dipper is larger and brighter than the Little Dipper, with its seven stars shining brightly enough to be visible even from light-polluted areas.
Conversely, the Little Dipper is fainter, with only Polaris and Kochab readily seen from typical suburban skies.
The rest of the stars are often too dim to be noticed in all but the darkest conditions.
Position In The Sky
The Big Dipper revolves around the North Star but never sets below the horizon in most of the northern hemisphere, making it circumpolar.
The Little Dipper, on the other hand, seems to dangle from the North Star, making it a bit challenging to locate.
How Can You Tell The Little Dipper From The Big Dipper?
Despite the differences in brightness, you can identify the Little Dipper by using the Big Dipper as a reference point.
The two outer stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper – Dubhe and Merak – are known as the “pointer stars” because they form a straight line pointing to Polaris, the brightest star in the Little Dipper.
This method of locating the North Star has been used by navigators for centuries.
Once you’ve found Polaris, you can trace the rest of the Little Dipper. Just remember, it will appear fainter and smaller than its larger counterpart.
Why Are They Called The Big and Little Dipper?
The names “Big Dipper” and “Little Dipper” are attributed to the distinct dipper or ladle-like shape formed by the seven main stars in each asterism. The terms originated in America, and these asterisms have been referred to as such since colonial times.
The Big Dipper, due to its larger size and the brightness of its stars, looks like a big ladle in the sky.
Conversely, the Little Dipper, while similar in shape, is less conspicuous and smaller, resembling a little ladle.
Where Are The Big And Little Dipper?
Where Is The Big Dipper?
To find the Big Dipper, simply look towards the northern sky on a clear night.
It’s one of the most recognizable patterns, with its famous bowl and handle.
Throughout the year, the Big Dipper rotates around the North Star, but never disappears below the horizon for most observers in the northern hemisphere.
Where Is The Little Dipper?
To find the Little Dipper, you’ll need to first locate the Big Dipper.
Use the two pointer stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl to draw an imaginary line that leads directly to Polaris, the North Star.
Polaris is the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper. While it’s harder to spot than the Big Dipper, once you’ve found it, you’ll always be able to locate the North Star in the night sky.
List of Stars In The Little Dipper
The Little Dipper consists of seven main stars. They are:
- Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris): The brightest star in Ursa Minor, known as the North Star, situated at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.
- Yildun (Delta Ursae Minoris): Located at the base of the handle.
- Epsilon Ursae Minoris: Forms the bend in the handle.
- Zeta Ursae Minoris: Marks the junction of the handle and the bowl.
- Kochab (Beta Ursae Minoris): The brightest star in the bowl, and the second brightest in Ursa Minor.
- Pherkad (Gamma Ursae Minoris): It’s near Kochab, at the edge of the bowl.
- Eta Ursae Minoris: The least bright, found at the end of the bowl, away from the handle.
List of Stars In The Big Dipper
The Big Dipper comprises seven prominent stars, namely:
- Dubhe (Alpha Ursae Majoris): This is one of the two pointer stars used to find Polaris.
- Merak (Beta Ursae Majoris): The second pointer star located at the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl.
- Phecda (Gamma Ursae Majoris): Found at the inner edge of the bowl.
- Megrez (Delta Ursae Majoris): The faintest of the seven, it’s where the handle meets the bowl.
- Alioth (Epsilon Ursae Majoris): The first star in the handle, moving away from the bowl.
- Mizar (Zeta Ursae Majoris): The second star in the handle, it has a faint companion star, Alcor, which can be seen without a telescope under good conditions.
- Alkaid (Eta Ursae Majoris): The final star in the handle, also known as the tip of the Great Bear’s tail.
While the Big Dipper and Little Dipper may look similar at first glance, they each have their unique characteristics that set them apart.
Understanding these differences not only helps us appreciate their beauty but also serves as a reminder of the vast and wondrous nature of our universe.
Hey, my name is Chris. I’m a passionate and seasoned astronomer who loves nothing more than observing the night sky. I also love researching, learning, and writing all things Space and the Universe. I created Astronomy Scope to share my knowledge, experience, suggestions, and recommendations of what I have learned along the way while helping anyone to get into and maximize their enjoyment of the hobby.