The Big Dipper wheels around the North Star like the hour-hand of a giant clock, ticking off the hours of the night. And winter is a good time to watch it, because it’s in good view most of the night.
Tonight, for example, the dipper stands clear of the northeastern horizon by an hour or two after night falls. It’s perched on its handle, with the bowl highest in the sky.
Over the following few hours, the dipper wheels counterclockwise around and over the North Star. It’s highest in the sky around 3 or 4 in the morning, stretching high across the north. The bowl is upside down, so it looks as though it’s spilling its contents toward the northern horizon.
After that, the dipper begins its descent across the northwest. It’s still quite high at first light, with the leading edge of the bowl higher than the North Star.
As the dipper turns across the sky, you can use the bowl to find the North Star. Line up the two stars that form the outer edge of the bowl, then extend the line away from the bowl. The first moderately bright star you come to is the North Star, Polaris.
Despite its important position in the sky, the North Star isn’t all that bright. So it’s good to have some well-known stars to point the way — like those of the Big Dipper: the great hand of a celestial clock that’s ticking off the hours of a long winter’s night.
Tomorrow: The crescent Moon and a tight pair of planets.
Script by Damond Benningfield