The Little Dipper lies in the northern sky’s Little Bear or Ursa Minor constellation. The Lesser Bear’s tail resembles a ladle’s handle, so that is how the Little Dipper came about.
Ursa Minor was a constellation listed during the second-century astronomer Ptolemy’s guide to celestial objects. And it remains one of the International Astronomers Union’s (IAU) 88 current constellations.
When asking how to find the Little Dipper, we’ve got some tips and tricks for you to make sure it is as. simple as possible.
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Polaris, The North Star
The Little Dipper is an asterism within the Ursa Minor Constellation, but the two get dumped into the same star grouping. Polaris is the brightest star within the Little Dipper. It’s a yellow-white supergiant and Cepheid variable star. Its apparent magnitude ranges from 1.97 to 2.00.
Polaris is less than one full degree from true north, and the whole northern sky appears to turn around it. Because Polaris is so close to Earth’s rotational axis, it appears motionless. And that makes it incredibly important for celestial navigation.
Two stars near Polaris gained the name Guardians of the Pole, Kochab and Perhkad, continually circling the North Pole. Let’s look at how to find the Little Dipper so you can observe all these stars yourself.
Finding The Little Dipper
It is easiest to find the Big Dipper first when you are searching the night sky for the smaller asterism. The two asterisms lie in the same sky area, and their closeness makes them easy to locate. So here are the steps you’ll take to find the Little Dipper.
Locate the two pointer stars of the Big Dipper. Look in their bowl for Merak and Dubhe, imagine a line through the two stars, and then look about five times more distance to find Polaris. The bright North Star forms the Little Dipper’s handle end.
Interestingly, no matter how much the Big Dipper moves throughout the Northern sky, its pointer stars always aim at Polaris. And in addition, the Little Dipper’s handle points opposite the Big Dipper’s. So when one is upright, the other appears upside down.
Finding The Big Dipper
It is easier to spot the Big Dipper than the Little One. And that’s because the Little Dipper has fainter stars. So the best way to find the Little Dipper is to use the Big One as a guide.
The Big Dipper is in the northern hemisphere’s second quadrant (NQ2.) It is visible from latitude locations between -30° and +90°. Springtime months offer the best viewings, especially in April when the asterism and Ursa Major constellation make their way across the night skies.
Since the Big Dipper is circumpolar, it doesn’t fall below the horizon but stays visible throughout the year. And because of Earth’s rotation, the stars seem to rotate counterclockwise around the celestial north pole.
If you’ve found the Big Dipper but still have trouble finding the Little Dipper, you may need a darker sky. Unfortunately, light pollution makes it difficult to see the fainter asterism well. So moving to a dark sky area should significantly increase your chance of finding the Little Dipper.
Guardians of the Pole
Pherkad and Kochab are the Guardians of the Pole and part of the Little Dipper in the Ursa Minor constellation. They make up the outer scoop of the asterism at the farthest point from Polaris. And they often get overlooked because of the more famous North Star.
It’s relatively easy to find the Guardians once you’ve found the Little Dipper. They’re the only three stars in the asterism bright enough to see from most urban areas. Polaris marks the end of the Dipper’s handle (or the bear’s tail.) So look from it toward the Little Dipper’s bowl or scoop to find the bright Pherkad and Kochab.
You can also align your telescope using Kochab to help aim toward the true North. Polaris is about 0.7 degrees off, so backyard astronomers seek to move the same distance in Kochab’s direction to get correctly centered.
Between 1500 and 500 BCE, Pherkad and Kochab were twin pole stars. But slowly, the north celestial pole moved closer to Polaris over time.
Pole Guardians’ Size
These two giant stars are more extensive than Earth’s Sun. For example, Kochab is an orange giant that continues evolving. And even though it is 40 times the Sun’s diameter, Kochab isn’t as hot. However, it has more than twice the Sun’s mass and shines at a 2.08 magnitude.
Smaller Pherkad is only about 15 times the diameter of our Sun, but it is hotter by far. Pherkad pumps energy at 1,100 times the Sun’s rate, making it more luminous. It is a blue giant star with a magnitude of 3.05.
Pole Guardians’ Magnitude
Once you find the Little Dipper, you’ll be in awe of its brightest stars. For example, Polaris is typically the brightest star in the asterism and the Lesser Bear Constellation with a magnitude of 1.97. However, it is variable, so sometimes Kochab shines a little more brightly.
Little Dipper Meteor Showers
Ursa Minor has one meteor shower active from December 17th to the 23rd. You can best view the Ursids from midnight to dawn on the morning of December 22nd. Observers might see up to ten meteors each hour. These showers come from the 8P/Tuttle Comet or Mechain-Tuttle’s Comet.
To watch the meteor showers, find the Little Dipper and Ursa Minor starting to climb higher into the sky in December.
Little Dipper in History
In the 1600s, astronomer Johannes Hevelius described ten constellations, one of which he called Draco the Dragon. And a star in that constellation, Thuban, was the designated North Star when the Egyptians built the pyramids.
Because of precession, the orientation of the Earth’s axis changes over about 26,000 years, so we have a new North Star now. Earth’s axis literally points to different stars as it traces out a circle in the stars.
Now Draco’s long tail drifts between the Big and Little Dipper. And you can still see it from a dark sky area. The constellation is one of the International Astronomical Union’s 88 recognized constellations.
Observation Tips For Finding The Little Dipper
For those who want to observe the stars of the Little Dipper, your best bet is to find a dark spot away from city lights. Give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness, whether or not you use a telescope. Gaining your night vision helps you see the asterism’s fainter stars. Avoid bright lights or electronic screens for 15-20 minutes before trying to find the Little Dipper.
Use a star chart or smartphone app to identify the Little Dipper’s specific stars. While Polaris is the easiest to see, a stargazing app helps you familiarize yourself with fainter stars before you start trying to find them.
How To Find The Little Dipper Wrap Up
One of the most significant aspects of the Little Dipper is its North Star, Polaris. Polaris looks almost still in the night sky at the end of the dipper’s handle. And that makes it useful for navigation. Face the North Star to head north to find your place at night.
It is easiest to find the Little Dipper by first locating the Big Dipper. Then, use the two stars in its bowl to draw an imaginary line toward the North Star through the sky. Once you find it, you’ve found the Little Dipper.
If you have trouble locating either asterism, you may need to move to a darker location away from light pollution. Especially the Little Dipper’s stars are faint and difficult to see from brightly lit cities.