Everyone knows the Great Bear, also known as Plough or Big Dipper, as it is depicted on the Alaskan flag. The Great Bear is formed by asterisms, a group of easily recognized stars which form a pattern and are part of a larger, formal constellation. In this case, the constellation is Ursa Major, Latin for the Great Bear.
How to spot the Great Bear
Spotting a Great Bear in the sky may be easier said than done, but by first locating the Plough, you will soon make out the rest of the picture. First look for a constellation of seven stars with three extra bright stars in a row. These make up the handle of the Plough. Then look towards north to make out the bowl. Once you have it, the handle is the tail of the bear and the bowl forms part of the upper back, with the body and legs extending down below. Ursa Major is visible all year round in the northern hemisphere and is partially visible in some northern sections of the southern hemisphere. Because it rotates around the North Star, Polaris, Ursa Major never sets below the horizon. Early in the morning or early in the evening are the best times to spot the constellation. Depending on where you are on the planet you may see the Great Bear upside down, the right way up or tilted.
Despite its Latin name, the constellation has its roots in Greek Mythology. Callisto was a beautiful woman who was a companion of Artemis, the Goddess of Hunting. Despite taking a vow of chastity, the God Zeus noticed her and deceived her into breaking her vow. She fell pregnant and was banished into the wild by Artemis to give birth to a son, Arcas. Hera, the wife of Zeus, hearing of her husband’s indiscretion was furious and turned poor Callisto into a bear, spending many years wandering alone in the wilderness. One day she encountered her long-lost son, who, not knowing that the bear was his mother, was about to kill her. Zeus intervened, creating a whirlwind that sweeps them both into the heaven to become Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and the Little Bear.
The Plough section of Ursa Major is one of the most recognized star patterns in the northern hemisphere. In the United Kingdom, it is known as the Plough, in Ireland as King David's Chariot and in Mongolia as the Seven Gods. West Africa calls it the Drinking Gourd and in Finland it is Otava. Ancient civilizations used Ursa Major for navigation as it points directly to the North Star.