Probably the best known constellation in the sky, Ursa Major has been written about for thousands of years. You’ve likely heard of this constellation referred to as the Great Bear, and if not, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Big Dipper, which is made up of seven of the starts of Ursa Major. It is often paired with the Ursa Minor constellation.
As well as the starts that make up the constellation, because of its large size many galaxies can also be seen in this vicinity too. This is one of the main reasons why it’s so easy to spot in the sky, as it’s often one of the brightest regions. So, we’re going to look at this constellation in greater detail.
Ursa Major Constellation
- Bordered By; Draco, Camelopardalis, Lynx, Leo Minor, Leo, Coma Berenices, Canes Venatici Boötes.
- Named after; The Great Bear
- Declination; 55°
- Brightest Star; Alioth
- Best seen; Northern Hemisphere, Springtime
- Size rank; 3rd
- Constellation family; Ursa Major family
- Pronunciation; ERR-SAA
What is Ursa Major named after?
Different traditions refer to Ursa Major in different ways, but we do think that it dates back at least 13,000 years to the first speakings of it in myths and folklore. In Roman tradition, it is said that Ursa Major is the nymph Callisto. Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus) lusted after Callisto; so much so that his wife, Juno, turned Callisto into a bear out of jealousy!
Who founded the Ursa Major Constellation?
This is one of 48 different constellations that were first recorded by the astronomer Ptolemy, around 200AD. Although we typically credit Ptolemy with the first known writings of these constellations, it’s accepted that he was just the one to catalogue them together – they undoubtedly go back much further than this.
How can I see Ursa Major in the sky?
Actually, Ursa Major is one of the easiest constellations for us to spot in the night sky. In the Northern hemisphere, it is available to see for almost all of the year, but especially so through the Spring months before summer sets in, as at this time it is very high above the horizon.
Mains stars of Ursa Major
As well as the main stars of Ursa Major, you can also find the Pinwheel Galaxy, the Cigar Galaxy and Bode’s Galaxy in the constellation too. Plus, next to Merak, you can also spot the Owl Nebula too.
- Epsilon Ursae Majoris (ε), or Alioth – As the thirty third brightest star in the sky and the brightest in Ursa Major, Alioth has been used throughout history by sailors and navigators to help them journey across the sea.
- Alpha Ursae Majoris (α), or Dubhe – The second brightest star in this constellation is known as Dubhe, and it also makes up part of the Big Dipper. It is a binary star, made up of one giant star and a main sequence star.
- Eta Ursae Majoris (η), or Alkaid – In star years, Alkaid is actually relatively young, as we think that it’s been around for approximately 10 million years. This star radiates around 600 times as much energy as our Sun.
- Ursae Majoris (ζ), or Mizar – Although the fourth brightest star in this constellation, it’s actually made up of a quadruple star system (a double binary star system).
Overall, as one of the largest and best known constellations, Interestingly enough, the Big Dipper actually was known by other names across different parts of the world – in the UK, it was known as the Plough, and in Germany, they referred to it as the Wagon.
So whilst the Big Dipper is made up of stars from the Ursa Major constellation, it’s not actually a constellation itself. We instead refer to it as an asterism, which is just a name we give to a group or pattern of stars in the night sky (basically it’s an informal constellation!).