The constellation of Ursa Major (Great Bear)

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

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