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Farmers Almanac
The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

Learn More About the Big Dipper

Learn More About the Big Dipper

One of the most recognizable night sky features in the Northern Hemisphere is the group of seven stars commonly referred to in North America as the Big Dipper, so named because they resemble a ladle with a long curved handle and a deep bowl.

Many people mistakenly refer to the Big Dipper as a constellation. The Dipper is more accurately described as an asterism — a well-known grouping of stars that has not been officially classified as a constellation. In fact, the seven stars of the Big Dipper are actually the part of a larger constellation known as Ursa Major, or the Big Bear.

Though the description of the larger constellation as some type of bear (or a big dog in some cultures) seems to be somewhat universal, agreement on the Big Dipper is less widespread. Most European cultures — including Irish, Scandinavian, and Slavic cultures — see the Dipper as a wagon. Other descriptions include a plow, a salmon net, a butcher’s cleaver, and even a coffin with three attendant mourners. Other cultures that describe the grouping as a dipper include China (the Northern Dipper), Malaysia (the ladle), and some African tribal cultures, which describe the stars as “the drinking gourd.”

In Canada and Northern portions of the United States, the Big Dipper is visible year round and is one of the most prominent groups of stars in the night sky. During the spring and summer, it appears high in the sky during the early evening. In the fall and winter, it climbs the sky throughout the night, reaching its peak shortly before dawn.

The Big Dipper’s handle is also useful for locating Polaris, the North Star. The two outermost stars in the bowl of the Dipper — Dubhe and Merak — point to Polaris. Just follow the line of them from the bottom of the bowl and out the top, and Polaris sits about the same distance from the top star as the depth of the bowl.

If you notice a hole in the upper left-hand corner of your Farmers' Almanac, don't return it to the store! That hole isn't a defect; it's a part of history. Starting with the first edition of the Farmers' Almanac in 1818, readers used to nail holes into the corners to hang it up in their homes, barns, and outhouses (to provide both reading material and toilet paper). In 1910, the Almanac's publishers began pre-drilling holes in the corners to make it even easier for readers to keep all of that invaluable information (and paper) handy.