Ursa Major is one of the oldest and most well-known constellations. It is one of the original 48 constellations described by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century. The name Ursa Major means the big bear, and it is famously known for the distinctive asterism we call the “Big Dipper”. It is the largest northern constellation.
Ursa Major lies far from the Milky Way, so the population of stars is sparce. This makes the sky dark, so the big dipper shape is prominent in the night sky. Historically, Ursa Major and neighboring Ursa Minor are both important constellations for navigation.
Because it is circumpolar, it is viewable throughout the year from the northern hemisphere. When people name a star as a gift in this area, the available stars are smaller due to the low population of objects. The area is popular, however, because it is easy to look up and know the general area of the named star shining overhead.
The pointer stars are Dubhe, the back of the bear, and Merak, the loin of the bear. Dubhe is a bright yellow binary of 2 magnitude. Merak is 2.5 magnitude and greenish-white in color.
All of the visible major stars in Ursa Major have names which relate to parts of the bear. There is a meteor shower on November 10th from “Alkaid”, the end of the tail or handle.
But, like Argo Navis and Orion, there is something even more important which distinguishes the big and little dippers (or bears). Most laymen who want to orient themselves while gazing at the stars do so by first finding the big dipper. They can draw an imaginary line from where the dipper would spill.
That spill, if followed, leads directly to Polaris, which is the fixed North Star. Polaris is also the last star in the handle of the “Little Dipper”. If you can remember that the big dipper pours on the tail of the little dipper’s handle, you have located two constellations, and found the Polaris star.
In American history, Ursa Major was useful to navigators of the Underground Railroad seeking a better life. The Big Dipper of Ursa Major was a celestial milestone for enslaved people to find their way north.
Ursa Major has been an important constellation in many cultures. The ancient Romans named it Sepentrio, meaning “seven plough oxen”. It is still sometimes referred to as the plough.
The nearest constellations to Ursa major are Boötes, Camelopardalis, Canes Venatici, Coma Berenices, Draco, Leo, Leo Minor and Lynx.
Right Ascension: 11:29
Diameter (°): 31
Area (square °): 1280
Opposition: Mar 12
Size Rank: 3rd
Brightness Rank: 8th
Genitive: Ursae Majoris
Major or notable stars in Ursa Major
Alioth – ε Ursae Majoris (Epsilon Ursae Majoris)
Dubhe – α Ursae Majoris (Alpha Ursae Majoris)
Merak – β Ursae Majoris (Beta Ursae Majoris)
Alkaid – η Ursae Majoris (Eta Ursae Majoris)
Phecda – γ Ursae Majoris (Gamma Ursae Majoris)
Megrez – δ Ursae Majoris (Delta Ursae Majoris)
Mizar – ζ Ursae Majoris (Zeta Ursae Majoris)
Alcor (80 Ursae Majoris)
W Ursae Majoris
Messier 40 (M40, Winnecke 4, WNC 4)
47 Ursae Majoris
Alula Borealis and Alula Australis – ν (Nu) and ξ (Xi) Ursae Majoris – “the first leap”
Tania Borealis and Tania Australis – λ (Lambda) and μ (Mu) Ursae Majoris – “the second leap”
Talitha Borealis and Talitha Australis – ι (Iota) and κ (Kappa) Ursae Majoris – “the third leap”
Muscida – ο Ursae Majoris (Omicron Ursae Majoris)
ψ Ursae Majoris (Psi Ursae Majoris)
Deep Sky Objects in Ursa Major
Bode’s Galaxy – Messier 81 (M81, NGC 3031)
Cigar Galaxy – Messier 82 (M82, NGC 3034)
Owl Nebula – Messier 97 (M97, NGC 3587)
Pinwheel Galaxy – Messier 101 (M101, NGC 5457)
Messier 108 (M108, NGC 3556)
Messier 109 (M109, NGC 3992)
Mythology of the Constellation Ursa Major
The constellation is so pronounced in the sky that there are a significant number of tales about it from many cultures over many centuries.
There are many remarkable stories surrounding both Ursa Major and Ursa Minor as two tireless bears of the sky who never find rest nor water to slake their thirst.
In Greek mythology, it is associated with Callisto, a nymph who was turned into a bear. Zeus spied the beautiful nymph Callisto one day and fell in love. Unfortunately, she had already sworn a vow of chastity. Despite this, Callisto became pregnant with her son Arcas by Zeus and was banished by Artemis for her broken vow.
Atremis was not the only woman angry about the union of Zeus and Callisto. Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife was enraged. Either Hera or Artemis changed beautiful Callisto into a Bear who wandered the forest alone.
Years later in the forest, Callisto encountered her son Arcas who did not recognize her. Fearful, Arcus drew his spear to smite the great bear. At the last minute, Zeus caught sight of the impending tragedy.
He quickly moved Callisto and Arcus from the Earth to the stars. Callisto became Ursa Major, and Arcas became the small bear, Ursa Minor. In another variation of the story, Arcas became Boötes the herdsman.
The story continues that Hera was displeased by this last-minute rescue. To continue their suffering, the tired bear is never allowed to dip into the ocean or set from the sky in mid-northern latitudes.
The seven bright stars have other meanings in different cultures. In Korea they represent seven stones placed in a stream by seven sons of a widow.
In Hindu legend, the brightest stars of Ursa Major are called Atri, Angiras, Bhrigu, Kratu, Pulastya, Pulaha, and Vasishtha. They represent the “Seven Sages”, and the constellation is known as Saptarshi.
In some native American traditions, the constellation is represented as warriors chasing a wounded bear. The blood of the wounded bear is what causes the leaves of autumn to turn red each year.
Although most commonly known as a bear, other variations of Ursa Major include: A canoe, a camel, a sickle, a wagon, a shark, and a skunk.