URSA MAJOR "The Great Bear" pronounced UR-sah MAY-jer

Chart showing the constellation.

URSA MAJOR "The Great Bear", also known as the Big Dipper or the Plough is third largest constellation in size. It is an ancient and well-known star group to which the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in 150 AD assigned 27 stars. The Big Dipper or Plough figure made by the seven brightest stars is well known by every northern astronomer. References to it are found in writings dating back to the dawn of civilisation. In Europe the pattern was seen as a wagon or chariot, possibly associated with King Arthur or the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemange. Others, notably the Arabs, viewed the dipper shape not as a bear, but as a bier or coffin. Some of the stars of the Big Dipper are at similar distances from us and are moving together through space.

Ursa Major is rather low in the northern sky, and not all the constellation is visible from New Zealand. The horizon on the chart is for Auckland; residents of Invercargill may just see from Tania Borealis up.

To find Ursa Major look very low to the north under an area under Leo the Lion, between Pollux and Castor, the Twins and Arcturus. The Big Dipper would appear upside-down to us but is below the horizon.

Chart showing the constellation as seen to the north at about 10.00 pm (NZST) in mid April.

The horizon shown is for Auckland, the horizon for Invercargill goes through λ UMa.

Ursa Major.

Constellation Cancer Constellation Leo Leo Minor Constellation Gemini Constellation Lynx Constellation Hydra Coma Berenices Canes Venatici Constellation Bootes Constellation Virgo

Details of some of the objects shown in the chart.

Alula Australis, ξ Ursæ Majoris is a magnitude 4.3 yellow star.

Alula Borealis, ν UMa is a magnitude 3.5 orange star 421 light years away.
These two stars are named from the Arabic al Ula, meaning first leap of the Gazelle. Australis means south, and Borealis means north.

Tania Australis, μ UMa is a magnitude 3.06 red star 249 light years away.

Tania Borealis, λ UMa is a magnitude 3.45 blue star 134 light years away.

These two stars are named from the Arabic Ath-Thaniyah, being the "second leap" of the Gazelle. Together the stars were Al Kafzah al Thaniyah the second spring of the Gazelle.

Talitha, ι UMa is a magnitude 3.1 blue star 48 light years away. Talitha comes from the Arabic "Third leap" of the Gazelle or Ath-Thalithah.

Phecda, γ UMa and Dubhe, α UMa are two stars of the Big Dipper. Phecda just rises as seen from north Northland but not from Auckland southwards. Dubhe is below the horizon for all parts of New Zealand


The parts of this northerly constellation which are visible from New Zealand are only above the horizon for a few hours at the most. Talitha, ι UMa, has a maximum altitude of 5° from Auckland and just rises for all the North Island. It is not visible from the South Island

The two Tania stars are to the north and highest at 9 pm in mid April in New Zealand, while the two Alula stars, in the most southerly parts of the constellation, are highest at 9 pm early in May.