Bears in the Sky: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor

This drawing depicts the constellation Ursa Major. Notice the bear’s long tail. Do black bears have tails like that? (Drawing by Johannes Hevelius)

By Elizabeth Watts, Educator

Most of the time when you go outside at night, you don’t want to encounter any bears. However, there are always bears around if you know where to look — up in the stars! Luckily these bears won’t be bothered by your presence. 

The bears are the constellations known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, or the Greater Bear and the Lesser Bear. The stars that make up these constellations are almost always visible in the northern hemisphere. While the Greeks, Romans, and Native people of the Americas saw bears, other cultures saw a wagon, a plough, a coffin, and many other things. Since this is Bear Fest, we’ll focus on the bear stories. 

These drawings represent the constellations Ursa Major (the Greater Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Lesser Bear). Can you find the Big Dipper within Ursa Major? The two stars at the bottom of the bowl point to Polaris, the North Star. (Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman)

The written history of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor goes back thousands of years. Ptolemy listed Ursa Major and Ursa Minor as one of 48 constellations in one of the earliest surviving books on astronomy. It is mentioned in even earlier works, such as a poem by Aratus in 275 BCE. In this blog post, the author lists myths going back even farther in history.

As with many stories from history, there is more than one version of the myth of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. One version is that Ursa Major represents Callisto who had a child with Zeus, king of the Greek gods. When Zeus’ wife, Hera, found out, she turned Callisto into a bear. Then one day Callisto’s son was out hunting and saw a great bear, not realizing it was his mother. To save them both Zeus threw them into the sky. Callisto became Ursa Major and her son, Arcus, became Ursa Minor. In other stories, Zeus turned Callisto into the bear to hide her from Hera. Other stories use the Roman form of the gods, Jupiter and Juno.

The bears in ancient Greece were Eurasian brown bears that are related to the grizzly bears found in North America. These bears are different from the black bears that live in New Mexico. Currently, there are estimated to be 450 brown bears living in the mountains of Greece. In general, bears are in declining numbers in Europe due to loss of habitat, but several groups in Greece are working to protect their bears. 

In the drawing of Ursa Major based on the Greek myths, many people notice something unusual — the bear’s tail! Bears did not have long tails like this, even thousands of years ago. One story says that when Zeus threw the bear into the sky, he stretched out its tail. Interestingly, some of the Native people in the Americas told stories of a bear in this collection of stars. However, they did not see the handle of the dipper as a giant bear tail. Instead, the stars were seen hunters that were following the bear. As with the Greek and Roman myths, there are many versions of this story amongst Native people. Here is one version of an Iroquois story of the Hunting of the Great Bear.

You can also watch a video version of the Never Ending Bear Hunt from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Many other stories explain these stars, like this legend from the Cheyenne people about the Big Dipper called “The Quillwork Girl and Her Seven Brothers.”

Many of us are familiar with the Big Dipper. This group of stars is visible all year even in places with light pollution and is very recognizable. The dipper is not a constellation itself, but is called an “asterism” which is a collection of stars. While the Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, it is not all of it. In the picture above you can see the dipper is just part of the larger bear. The Big Dipper is also known by other names around the world, such as the Plough, the Seven Sages, a boat, a salmon net, and others.

This photo shows how close Polaris, the North Star, is to the North Celestial Pole. If you can find this star at night, you can figure out which way is north! (Photo by Giuseppe Donatiello)

In addition to the fact that the Big Dipper is so easy to find, another reason this asterism is so widely known is that it helps people find north. Look at the above illustration of the two bears. The two stars at the end of the “bowl” of the Big Dipper point to Polaris, the North Star. Polaris also happens to be the end of the tail of the Little Dipper, but it is much easier to find the Big Dipper first. 

In the last photograph, you can see all the stars rotating around the North Celestial Pole. Polaris is also shown so you can see how close it is to lining up with the pole. If you can find Polaris at night you can figure out what direction you are going. 

Since the Big Dipper rotates around Polaris, you can use its position to approximate what time it is! Here’s an article on how to make your very own star clock. Try it out if you go camping or just in your own backyard. Just try not to disturb any wildlife that may also be out at night, like a real bear! 

Also remember when you are looking at the stars that it is fun to look for constellations that other people recognize, but it is also fun to look for your own patterns in the stars. Maybe you can write your own story from what you see in the stars and send it to us!

Week 2, Day 6: Spring Astronomy

Celebrate Earth Hour tonight by turning off your lights from 8:30 – 9:30 PM. (Image by NASA/MSFC)

Celebrate Earth Hour tonight! Turn off your lights for one hour, from 8:30 to 9:30 PM local time, and show your support for our planet.

While your lights are turned off, we suggest taking advantage of the darkness and going outside to admire our beautiful night sky!

Blog Post:

Learn what you can look for in tonight’s sky from PEEC educator Elizabeth Watts. Plus, check out her tips for having a fun family star party at home. Read today’s blog post here.

Craft:

Build a tasty version of your favorite spring constellation with marshmallows and toothpicks! If you don’t have marshmallows, use chunks of apple or playdough.

Use a this list of spring constellations to pick out a constellation to make. Then, use this sky map to help you find it in the night sky this evening. What other constellations are nearby? Try out storytelling and create a story to connect the neighboring spring constellations.

Get more tips for this activity and see examples here.

Outdoor Challenge:

Look for a crescent moon this evening. (Photo by David Moug/Creative Commons)

Go outside this evening and try to find the following:

  • The crescent moon (in the west)
  • The planet Venus (in the west, right next to the moon!)
  • Stars with different colors
  • The constellation Orion
  • The constellation Leo

Write, draw, or tell a story in your nature journal about the night sky as it appears tonight and share it with us!

Other Resources:

  • Sad you can’t visit our planetarium right now? You can test this tool to see how the night sky will appear on any date and time.
  • Do you want to learn more about astronomy? PEEC is trying to livestream an astronomy talk every Friday at 7 PM from our team of astronomers. Check out our upcoming talks on our events page.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us your star stories! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us on Monday, March 30 to learn about our four-footed friends!

Spring’s Starry Skies

Look at our skies tonight to see the waxing crescent moon. (Photo by Kevin Gill)

By Elizabeth Watts, PEEC Educator

Have you noticed any change in the days lately? No, I’m not talking about missing school or working from home! The days are getting longer. Last week was the spring equinox, and now we have more daylight than darkness. 

This is a great time of year to start studying the sky. The sun sets earlier than in the summertime so kids don’t have to stay up so late. We are also lucky to live in a part of the country with dark skies, which allow us to see great things up above, even from our own backyards. Let’s explore what we can learn from looking at the sky. 

Moon

As we all spend more time at home, one thing to observe is the phase of the moon. Tuesday, March 24, was the new moon. A new moon occurs when the moon is nearly in front of the sun. We aren’t able to see the moon at this phase because the sun is so bright. Every day for the next few weeks, the moon should look a little bit bigger. It will also be a little farther away from the sun, until we see a full moon, which occurs when the moon is opposite the sun. The full moon rises just as the sun sets. But until that time, we will see the moon in the sky during the day.

This is a great time to start a moon phase calendar. Every day, sketch what the phase of the moon is. You can use PEEC’s template, or you can draw your own. Try to notice a pattern. How long does it take to get to the full moon? How long does it take to get back to a new moon? Is the moon in the same position in the sky every day? 

The moon and Venus will be visible near each other this evening. Here’s a photo of these two objects in 2015. (Photo by Kevin Gill)

Planets

Have you noticed a bright star in the west in the past few months? If not, take a look! This bright light is actually not a star, but the planet Venus. It is the third brightest object in our sky, after the sun and the moon. Venus is very similar in size to Earth, but the thick atmosphere of Venus makes that planet the hottest in our solar system. Check out some information about Venus from NASA here. 

If you have a telescope, you can even see phases of Venus, similar to the phases we observe on the moon. Even without a telescope, Venus and the crescent moon will be visible together after sunset tonight (March 28). 

Constellations

Orion is still visible in the southwestern sky at this time of year. (Photo by Kevin Gill)

Another thing that is changing with spring is the constellations we see at night. Many people are familiar with Orion, which is visible throughout the winter. Orion is easy to spot because of the three stars in the belt. It is still visible in the evening at this time of year, in the southwestern sky. Other constellations are also starting to appear. Leo the Lion is one that comes back in the spring. It is easy to recognize because the brightest stars look like a backward question mark. You’ll see it in the eastern sky in the evenings of late March.

There is also the Big Dipper, which you can use to find the North Star. The Big Dipper (which is part of the constellation Ursa Major, the big bear) is always visible in the northern sky, but moves around the North Star as our planet turns. You can make a star clock to use the position of the Big Dipper to tell approximately what time it is! Get instructions and download the star clock template here.

Tips for a Family Star Party

Not good at finding constellations or knowing the names of things? Don’t worry! The stars don’t care if you know their names.

  • Make it fun to go look at the stars together.
  • Bundle up to stay warm!
  • See if you can notice any differences in the stars. Are some different colors? Are some brighter than others?
  • Have everyone try to find their initials in the stars.
  • Make up your own stories.
  • When you go back inside, have hot chocolate or tea, and write down or draw your star stories.

Send your stories or questions to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.