"Unofficial" constellations

Where did the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper go?

The 'Little Dipper' and the 'Big Dipper' – even people without any knowledge of astronomy will at least be familiar with these names. The Little Dipper and the Big Dipper are both configurations of seven bright stars that look like a dipper (ladle or scoop). Four stars form the bowl of the dipper, the other three form the handle.
This illustration from Johann Elert Bode's 1782 star atlas shows the constellation of the Great Bear. The seven brightest stars of the Great Bear are also known as the Big Dipper or Plough in English.

This illustration from Johann Elert Bode's 1782 star atlas shows the constellation of the Great Bear. The seven brightest stars of the Great Bear are also known as the Big Dipper or Plough in English.

By imagining a line between the two outermost stars of the Big Dipper – the ones furthest from the handle – and then extending it by five times, you almost immediately find the North Star (Polaris). The North Star forms the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper. In Europe, the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper are visible throughout the year and throughout the night.

Neither the Little Dipper nor the Big Dipper is on the list of official constellations.

The Little Dipper and the Big Dipper are the most well-known star configurations and they are important guideposts for the rest of the night sky. Still, strictly speaking they are not official constellations. Astronomers recognize 88 such official constellations; their names were registered in 1922 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU; the organization which in conjunction with UNESCO is organizing the International Year of Astronomy this year), putting an end to the confusion that had crept into the classification of constellations over the years.
Neither the Big Dipper nor the Little Dipper can be found in the official list of constellation names. Strictly speaking, they are just partial constellations or 'asterisms' – special groupings of stars. The Big Dipper forms part of the constellation 'Ursa Major', the Great Bear, and the Little Dipper forms part of the Little Bear or 'Ursa Minor'.

German Aerospace Center
» print article
Related articles:
This is a portrait of Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 decreed that a new calendar be used. The Gregorian calendar, which over the centuries has replaced most other calendars, was based on a reform of the way the date of Easter was calculated.
How the date for Easter is calculated

So, When is Easter?

» go to article
This widely reproduced woodcut was published for the first time in 1888 in Camille Flammarion's book "L'atmosphère". It depicts a man who sticks his head through the firmament in order to behold the workings of the universe.
Learn about astronomy

Why astronomy?

» go to article
The spacecraft SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) took this picture of the Sun's surface, showing an unusually large number of sunspots, in March 2001. Sunspots are caused by differences in temperature on the Sun's surface: cooler points appear as black spots.
Learn about Sun Spots

Why does the Sun have black spots?

» go to article
An illustration of the Milky Way based on photographs taken by the Spitzer space telescope. It shows our Sun in the side arm called 'Orion Spur', below the light-colored center of the galaxy. The abbreviation 'ly' provides the distance in light years.
Speed is relative

How fast is the Earth moving?

» go to article
Search
Astronomy Software

Redshift Android

Redshift for Android

The award winning Astronomy Software Redshift for Android. » more

Redshift Pro

Redshift Pro - Astronomy for iOS

The most advanced Redshift app » more

Redshift Astronomy

Redshift - Astronomy for iOS

The award winning Astronomy Software Redshift for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. » more

Redshift Discover Astronomy deutsch

Redshift Compact - Discover Astronomy for iOS

The beginners version of the leading astronomy App Redshift » more

Redshift 8 Premium

Redshift 8 Premium - Download Edition (Multilingua Edition)

Explore the universe from your PC with the award-winning and professional planetarium software - Languages: German, English, French
 » more

Redshift 8 Premium DL deutsch/engl 2

Redshift 8 Premium - Update from older versions

Update from Redshift 7 or older to the current version of the professional planetarium software - Languages: German, English, French
 » more

Redshift 8 Compact

Redshift 8 Compact - Download Edition

The professional planetarium software for beginners » more