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Looking Up column: Big Dipper is making its ‘spring leap’

Peter Becker
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Plaquemine Post South

Spring is here in the Northern Hemisphere, always a good sign as it means rebirth, new life, new hope, something our world needs in these challenging times. Some find comfort to turn off the news for a while, and appreciate the world around you, including the natural world - and the stars above.

Early to mid-evening in early springtime, we turn northward and see the Big Dipper standing on its handle, seemingly a balancing act, it actually does every 24 hours. I like to think of the sight of the Big Dipper in late March or early April, as doing its “spring leap.”

A refresher: As the Earth spins and takes us around with it, the stars look like they are moving once around every 24 hours, rising in the east and setting in the west, as the Earth rotates towards the east. In the northern sky, a portion of the sky never sets below the horizon; the seven stars of the Big Dipper make their endless rotation, leaping up from the northeast. By about 11 p.m., the Big Dipper is at its highest at this time of year, before it starts to nosedive to the northwest.

Early birds looking to the stars at around 5 a.m. will see the Big Dipper far to the left.

At around 11 a.m. the Big Dipper is low on the northern horizon, but of course, the daylight prevents you from seeing it. Note: the Big Dipper sets on the flat horizon for mid-northern latitudes. If you live much farther south, such as in Florida, part of the Dipper is hidden behind the Earth.

As you may know, the Big Dipper is part of a large constellation, Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Depending on how one connects the stars to imagine a bear, the Big Dipper’s “handle” stars mark the bear’s long tail (unlike any bear I’ve ever seen)! The famed children’s book author and illustrator, the late H.A. Rey, published a marvelous constellation book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them. He reconnected most of the constellations to make them actually look somewhat like what they are supposed to represent. Rey’s “Big Bear” has no tail at all, and the end star of the Big Dipper’s handle is the bear’s nose.

Marking the “paws” of the bear are three pairs of stars, visible on early springtime evenings to the right of the balancing Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper’s stars are often used to point the public across the sky to other constellations and bright stars. The front stars of the “bowl” point to the North Star, the end star in the handle of the Little Dipper (or Ursa Minor, the Little Bear).

Extend the line from the Big Dipper’s bowl stars the other way, to the bright blue-white star Regulus in Leo the Lion, rising in the east on early spring evenings.

Later at night with the Big Dipper high up, you can trace an arc from the handle stars to bring you to the bright orange star Arcturus. Keep the arc going, to the bright blue-white star Spica.

A diagonal line from the Big Dipper bowl points to the bright yellow star Cappella, high in the south-southwest on early spring evenings.

The names of the seven stars of the Big Dipper, from the tip of the handle around the bottom of the bowl, are Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Meral and Dubhe.

Take a good look at Mizar; a fainter star right by it is named Alcor; the pair is called the “Horse and the Rider.” Binoculars show them plainly. Dubhe has a nice yellow-orange shade.

New moon is on March 24.

Keep looking up at the stars!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.