How To Find the Big and Little Dipper

The Big and Little Dipper travel in a circumpolar direction and are easily visible in the night skies throughout the year. You can see the asterisms best in the Spring when they ride high in the night sky. The smaller of the two dippers, the Little Dipper has fainter stars and is slightly more challenging to see from light-polluted regions. But with a few quick tips, we’ll show you how to find the Big and Little Dipper and where they are in relation to each other.

Little and Big Dipper
Image: Earth and Sky/ Dill Knob Observatory

How To Find the Big and Little Dipper

Many observers think it is easier to find the Big Dipper than the Little One. And that’s because it contains much brighter stars. So start by finding the Big Dipper, then it will point you in the correct direction to locate the North Star in the Little Dipper.

Find The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper lies in the second quadrant of the northern hemisphere (NQ2.) You can best see it at latitudes between +90° and -30°. April and May offer the best Springtime viewings as Ursa Major rides high in the sky then.

The Big Dipper stays above the horizon and is visible throughout the year since it is circumpolar. And the stars appear to rotate clockwise around the celestial north pole due to Earth’s rotation. (A time lapse photograph of Polaris is a perfect star to use for a great shot!)

A Northern Hemisphere image finds the Big and Little Dipper higher in the night sky. This astrophotography comes via Galatic Images from a farm in Iowa, where the photographer visited friends in February 2014. You can see both asterisms are located high in the night sky.

How to Find the Little and Big Dipper
Image: John Chumack

But in the nightscape below, the same photographer captures both Dippers from Florida, where they are much lower in the night sky’s horizon. So you can still find the Big and Little Dipper further south, but they may reside lower than you usually see in the Northern United States or Canada.

How to Find the Big and Little Dipper
Image: John Chumack

Find The Little Dipper

After finding the more prominent asterism, you can easily follow its convenient pointer stars to find the Little Dipper. Look to the cup or dipper’s edge to find the two brightest stars. Then draw an imaginary line from Merak through Dubhe. 

Next, continue your line across the sky for a distance about five times greater than the distance between the pointers. Your eyes will come to Polaris at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. Conveniently, Polaris also marks the bear’s tail in the Lesser Bear Constellation.

Unfortunately, if you’ve found the Big Dipper but struggle to see the smaller one, you may be in an area with too much light pollution. The Little Dipper has fainter stars that are hard to see except in dark sky areas away from city lights. We suggest moving to a backyard with minimal light pollution or (even better) a local park that may not have any unnatural nighttime illumination. 

With a dark sky, you can see the Little Dipper between latitudes +90° and -10°. And it is best seen later in the year than its larger counterpart. June provides suitable viewing depending on your location in the Northern Hemisphere.

Where Are The Big and Little Dipper In Relation To Each Other?

The Big and Little Dipper are in the northern hemisphere’s second quadrant. So they are relatively close to one another in comparison to the vastness of the universe.

Big Dipper
Image: Adler Planetarium

The infographic above from Adler Planetarium in Chicago helps you visualize the distance between the Dippers and where they are in relation to one another.

Scientists measure the sky’s distance in degrees, and the entire space is 360 degrees. The Moon measures only half a degree to understand better how far that is. 

Now think about this, the Big Dipper measures approximately 20 degrees. So that means you put eleven full moons between pointer stars Dubhe and Merak. And almost 40 full moons could stretch between the end of the Dipper’s handle and the lowest corner of its bowl.

When looking at the night sky, use your closed fist to move three times from the Big Dipper’s pointer stars to Polaris. They are about 30 degrees apart, and your closed fist is approximately ten degrees across.

There isn’t a specific distance associated with the separation between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. And that is because stars in the two asterisms are at varying distances from Earth. Some stars from each group are closer to us than others, so it’s impossible to have an ideal measurement for the separation between the two in light years.

Deep Sky Objects Near The Big Dipper

Quite a few deep sky objects reside near the Big Dipper so that you can set up your telescope for a fantastic night’s viewing. Here are some excellent celestial views.

  • NGC 3031, M81, Bode’s Galaxy, the biggest grand design spiral galaxy in M81
  • NGC 3034, M82, the Cigar Galaxy, a spiral galaxy
  • M97, The Owl Nebula, a planetary nebula
  • NGC 5457, M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, one of the best-known grand design spiral galaxies
  • Messier 40, Winnecke 4, a double star 1.5 degrees northeast of Megrez, at the base of Ursa Major’s tail
  • Messier 108, a barred spiral galaxy near Merak, southwest star in the Big Dipper’s cup or bowl
  • Messier 109, a barred spiral galaxy southeast of Phecda, an inner Big Dipper bowl star
M109 Image: NASA, ESA, and J. Walsh; Processing: Gladys Kober

Seven Messier objects reside in Ursa Major near the Big Dipper. You can see them year-round with the Dippers in the northern hemisphere. But like the Dippers, you can best see the Messier objects during the Springtime when the Great Bear reaches its highest point.

Deep Sky Objects Near The Little Dipper

The Little Dipper has fewer close deep sky objects than the more prominent asterism. But a few attractive telescope-viewing options include the following.

  • NGC 6217, a barred spiral galaxy
  • NGC 2276, an interesting lopsided spiral galaxy
  • NGC 6251, a radio galaxy
  • Ursa Minor Dwarf, a spheroidal galaxy
  • NGC 3172, a faint galaxy residing near the North Celestial Pole
  • NGC 188, an open cluster near Polaris
  • NGC 6340, an 11th-magnitude unbarred spiral galaxy in Draco
Where are the big and little dipper in relation to each other?
M109 Image: NASA, ESA, and J. Walsh; Processing: Gladys Kober

Another fantastic viewing item is the Ursids meteor shower that occurs between December 17th through the 23rd. And they sometimes even extend through Christmas Day. Watch these meteors in Ursa Minor between midnight and dawn for the best shows.

How To Find The Big And Little Dipper Wrap Up

To find the Big and Little Dipper in the night sky, locate the Big Dipper, which is part of the Ursa Major constellation. It is easiest to see with its distinctive ladle or saucepan shape. 

Next, look for the seven bright stars forming the dipper’s bowl and handle. Once you’ve located the Big Dipper, you can use it as a guide to finding the Little Dipper in the Ursa Minor constellation.

Imagine a line connecting the two brightest stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl and extend that line upwards. Approximately three closed fists next to one another will lead you to the North Star, Polaris, the last star in the Little Dipper’s handle. 

The Little Dipper is smaller and less prominent than the Big Dipper but also resembles a ladle. Because of its fainter stars, find a dark location away from city lights and allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for better visibility of the Little Dipper.