About the stars

Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear) constellations Ursa Major and Minor

Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear) are circumpolar stars. This means they circle the polar point and (as seen from UK latitudes) never set below the horizon. They are visible around the circle of the sky all year round.

The constellations of Cassiopeia and Cepheus (see Perseus and Andromeda) are also circumpolar.

Planisphere by George Philip and Son, c. 1935 Planisphere - click image to find out more

During spring evenings Great Bear will be in the north-western sky and Cassiopeia in the north-east. During spring mornings it will be Cassiopeia in the north-western sky and Great Bear in the north-east. (In autumn, all this is reversed.) A planisphere shows this rotation just like a clock face.

« Back to the story

  • Great Bear and Little Bear - visibility of these stars
  • The constellation of Ursa Major (Great Bear)
  • The two bears - clock and compass of the sky
Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear) constellations Ursa Major and Minor

Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear) are circumpolar stars. This means they circle the polar point and (as seen from UK latitudes) never set below the horizon. They are visible around the circle of the sky all year round.

The constellations of Cassiopeia and Cepheus (see Perseus and Andromeda) are also circumpolar.

Planisphere by George Philip and Son, c. 1935 Planisphere - click image to find out more

During spring evenings Great Bear will be in the north-western sky and Cassiopeia in the north-east. During spring mornings it will be Cassiopeia in the north-western sky and Great Bear in the north-east. (In autumn, all this is reversed.) A planisphere shows this rotation just like a clock face.

« Back to the story

Other names for the Great Bear

Ursa Major from goblet globe Ursa Major (Great Bear) from goblet globe. Click image to find out more about the globe.

People from many different cultures have known about the two bear constellations from ancient times, but not everyone thought they were bears.

  • The Latin for Great Bear is Ursa Major. This is what astronomers call the constellation. (Little Bear is Ursa Minor.)
  • In Britain we often call part of the Great Bear the Plough from the shape we see in the seven main stars.
  • In North America part of the constellation is called the Big Dipper because it looks like a pan with a handle (and part of the Little Bear is called the Little Dipper.)
  • Great Bear from astrolabe plate Great Bear from Persian astrolabe plate. Click image to find out more about this object. To the Arabs, the Great Bear is the Funeral Bier – a frame for carrying a coffin. The bowl (dipper) part of the shape is the coffin, which holds the slain 'sky warrior'.
  • In the Marshall Islands (North Pacific) Great Bear is the Canoe, dipping into the ocean at its lowest point.
  • The Ancient Egyptians saw it as a thigh.
  • An old name for Great Bear was Septentriones, meaning the seven ploughing oxen.

Interesting features in Ursa Major

The 'Owl’ Nebula or M97. (M97 means Messier object number 97. Charles Messier made a list of fuzzy 'deep sky' objects which could be mistaken for comets.) The Owl Nebula is a planetary nebula – a cloudy patch which looks like a planet. It is really a gassy shell, mainly hydrogen, of an expanding but not exploding star. Through a small telescope there seem to be two holes in the centre of the shell, which look like the eyes of an owl.

M81 and M82: two vast spiral galaxies very close in line of sight near the bowl of the dipper or pan. A large telescope is needed to show the spiral structure.

Ursa Major and Minor

Mizar, one of the stars in the bear's tail, was the first star to be recognized as a visual binary (by G. B. Riccioli in 1650). (This is a type of a double star that can be seen without using a telescope.)

The two end stars in the bowl shape, Merak and Dubhe, are known as the Pointers, because a line drawn through them points to the extremely important Pole Star or North star, Polaris, in Ursa Minor (Little Bear).

Great Bear | Little Bear | The two bears

One story has it that Zeus's jealous wife Hera wanted more revenge on Kallisto and Arktos. She asked her brother, the sea-god Poseidon*, never to let them rest. So Poseidon forced Kallisto (the Great Bear) and her son Arktos (the Little Bear) to circle the North polar point forever, never setting below the horizon.

If so, Hera accidentally did a great favour to farmers and travellers throughout the ages: the two circling bears act as clock and compass, giving both time and direction.

*(see the Story of Perseus and Andromeda)

English nocturnal English nocturnal. Click image to find out more.

What's the time?

You can use the positions of the bears in the sky to tell the time. One device to help you do this is called a nocturnal. This has a time scale and pointers to line up with the stars (find out more here).

Where am I?

The Pole Star in the Little Bear constellation can be used to find north and also to work out your latitude (north-south position on the Earth). See the constellation of Ursa Minor (Little Bear) to find out more.

Great Bear | Little Bear | The two bears