The Little Dipper lies in the northern sky within the larger constellation Ursa Minor, also called the Little or Lesser Bear. The Little Dipper outlines the “little bear’s” backside and tail just like the Big Dipper outlines Ursa Major’s backside and tail.
Since the two constellations circle the North Star, sailors have used them for navigation over the centuries. The Little Dipper is fainter than its larger counterpart but still a beautiful and fascinating constellation. In this article, we’ll explore the stars in the Little Dipper, how to find the asterism in the night sky, its spiritual meaning, and some interesting Little Dipper facts.
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Is the Little Dipper a Real Constellation?
While it is one of the night sky’s most recognizable star groups, the Little Dipper is technically an asterism within the Ursa Minor Constellation.
Here is a simple constellation definition:
- A named group of stars
- Form a particular specific shape
The definition of asterism is quite similar.
- Distinctive star patterns
- Easy to identify and remember
So whether you call it the Little Dipper, the Little Bear, or Ursa Minor, the star grouping gets called a constellation and asterism, depending on the day or article you read. Even NASA refers to it both ways. It is technically an asterism, but calling it the Little Dipper Constellation is partially correct.
Stars in the Little Dipper
The Little Dipper has seven stars in the shape of a ladle or small saucepan. The stars in the Little Dipper are much fainter than those in the Big Dipper, but they are still visible to the naked eye on a clear night.
They are Polaris (Alpha), Kochab (Beta), Yildun (Delta), Pherkad (Gamma), Zeta Ursae Minoris, Eta Ursae Minoris, and Epsilon Ursae Minoris. Even though the constellation Ursa Minor contains many more stars, the whole region is usually called the Little Dipper.
An interesting thing about the Little Dipper is that it contains the North Star, Polaris, an essential star for navigation. This yellow supergiant star has the mass of six Suns and is also the constellation’s brightest, with a magnitude of 2.0.
Polaris is located close to the celestial North Pole and appears stationary in the same sky position as the Earth rotates. This stationery appearance makes it a helpful reference point for determining direction and navigation, especially in the northern hemisphere.
Additionally, because the Earth’s axis “wobbles” over time, the position of Polaris will shift slightly over long periods, making it an interesting astronomical phenomenon to observe and study.
Polaris lies at the Little Dipper Constellation’s handle end, making it easy to locate. In past times, sailors heading north aimed for the bright star. Those heading east kept the star on the boat’s aft or left side. During camping trips, scouting groups worldwide still learn basic navigation and orientation skills using the North Star.
Notice the image below outlining the Little Dipper with the label Ursa Minor. Even NASA uses the constellation and asterism names interchangeably.
Kochab and Pherkad
Kochabe and Pherkad are the two bright stars at the edges of the Little Dipper’s cup. About three thousand years ago, ancient Arabs called them Guardians of the Pole since they held the position where Polaris now lies.
How Do You Find the Little Dipper Constellation?
Finding the Little Dipper in the night sky is a fun and rewarding experience for astronomy enthusiasts. The best viewing time is during the northern hemisphere’s spring and summer months when the constellation is high in the sky, making it easy to spot.
To find the Little Dipper, first locate the Big Dipper, which is much easier to locate due to its larger size and brighter stars. The two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s scoop (or bowl) form a line that points to the North Star, Polaris. Polaris is the last star in the Little Dipper’s handle.
The Big and Little Dippers are opposites of one another, with one upright and the other facing upside down. Their handles also stretch in opposing directions.
Can You See the Little Dipper Constellation All Year?
Yes, you can see the Little Dipper Constellation all year round from most parts of the world. However, light pollution and atmospheric conditions interfere with night-sky viewing. Similar to viewing satellites from Earth, it can be very simple to see the Little Dipper, it just depends on the conditions.
City lights make it difficult to see the faint stars in the Little Dipper, so head out to a dark sky area for the best results. Even if you can’t fully see the Little Dipper from your backyard, you will likely still see Polaris.
Little Dipper Constellation Story
In Greek mythology, the Little Dipper represented the nymph Callisto, who was transformed into a bear by the goddess Hera as punishment for her relationship with Zeus. Callisto’s son Arcas almost killed her while hunting. Zeus then turned Arcas into a bear and threw them both into the sky as constellations – Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) and Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper.)
Another myth version says two bears protected Zeus from his father by hiding him on Mount Ida. Later Zeus threw the bears into the sky, pulling their tails long as he swung them.
Little Dipper Spiritual Meaning
The Little Dipper holds a special spiritual meaning for many people. In astrology, the Little Dipper represents the zodiac sign of Cancer, ruled by the moon, and expresses emotions, intuition, and nurturing.
The spiritual and mythological meanings of the Little Dipper and the stars within it vary across cultures and historical periods, but some common interpretations include the following:
- Guidance: In many cultures, the North Star symbolizes guidance and direction, as it is a fixed navigational point in the sky. The Little Dipper’s position near Polaris may also reinforce this symbolism.
- Wisdom: Some cultures associate the Little Dipper with wisdom and knowledge, perhaps because the constellation’s position near the North Star suggests a fixed and unchanging source of insight.
- Protection: In some Native American cultures, the Little Dipper is a protective symbol that watches over people and helps guide them on their journey.
Little Dipper Facts
Here are a few Little Dipper fun facts.
- The Little Dipper’s home base, Ursa Minor, is one of the International Astronomical Union’s 88 modern constellations.
- The seven stars forming the Little Dipper are relatively faint compared to many other stars in the night sky, but you can spot the brightest stars with the naked eye in dark skies.
- The North Star, Polaris, is a binary star system with a bright main star and a smaller companion star.
- Londoners sometimes call the two asterisms The Kites since they resemble the flying children’s toys.
The Little Dipper Constellation is more accurately termed an asterism. But even NASA uses the terms interchangeably for this star group. It rides high in the northern hemisphere with Polaris, the North Star, at the bottom of the dipper’s handle.
Throughout history, travelers have used the North Star for navigation, even while the remaining stars in the Little Dipper are more visible from a dark sky area. Ursa Minor and the Little Dipper continue capturing our imaginations, along with their larger partner, the Big Dipper.