Jimmy Westlake: Dippers large and small

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

— The celestial Bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, are coming out of their winter hibernation and can be seen parading around the north celestial pole this month. Better known in the United States as the Big and Little Dippers, these star patterns are known and loved by all.

The seven bright stars that form the Big Dipper shine prominently above the northeastern horizon as darkness falls in late March. It looks as if the Big Dipper is balancing precariously on its bent handle. In order, from bottom to top, the seven stars of the Big Dipper are named Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe.

Dubhe and Merak, the two stars at the top of the Big Dipper's bowl, are nicknamed "the Pointer Stars" because a line drawn through the two stars and extended downward will lead you to the North Star, Polaris. Polaris is about as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper and is important because it lies very close to the north pole of the sky, called the north celestial pole. As the Earth rotates on its axis, the celestial sphere appears to pivot around the north celestial pole with Polaris positioned near the center of the bull's eye. It remains nearly motionless in our sky and, so, can always be relied on to point out the direction north.

Polaris also happens to be the last star in the handle of the star pattern we call the Little Dipper. Like the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper is composed of seven stars, though only two of the seven are prominent, Polaris and Kochab. Moving down the handle from Polaris, the names of the remaining stars, in order, are Yildun, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Pherkad and Kochab. Together, Kochab and Pherkad are nicknamed "the Guardians of the Pole" because they circle the pole star Polaris as if protecting it from harm.

The four stars that make up the Little Dipper's bowl are very conveniently and quite by chance classified as second, third, fourth and fifth magnitude stars. For comparison, a sixth magnitude star would be a star at the limit of visibility to the human eye. One can judge the clarity of the night sky and/or the degree of light pollution by noting how many of the Little Dipper's bowl stars can be seen. If the sky is dark and clear, all four stars in the bowl should be visible. Unfortunately, from many urban and suburban areas, the two fainter stars are rendered invisible by artificial lighting that needlessly pollutes the night sky.

During the early spring, the two dippers are positioned so that the Big Dipper appears to be pouring its contents into the Little Dipper below it. Perhaps the overflowing bowl of the Little Dipper is responsible for the April showers that rain down on us and bring the May flowers that we all enjoy.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out his Web site at www.jwestlake.com.

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