May – Bears Come Out in Spring

Bears Come Out in Spring

By Calvin L. Chrisman

Big and Little Bears
The Big Bear and The Little Bear (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor)

Living where we do, we all know that bears will be coming out and moving around as the weather warms up. The same thing is happening in the northern sky. Ursa Major, the Big Bear, and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear are visible as the Sun sets. These two constellations are better known by the two asterisms they contain, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. (An asterism is a familiar pattern or shape that does not make up an entire constellation.) At this time of the year, the bowl of the Big Dipper is upside down, pouring water into the Little Dipper. The Big Dipper is prominent and easy to spot in the northern sky. Looking at the bowl, the two stars that currently form its left edge (toward the west) are pointing to Polaris, the North Star. Follow the line of these two stars counting five times the distance between them along the line and you will find Polaris. Polaris is the brightest star in the bowl of the Little Dipper.

There are several legends about the Big Bear and the Little Bear. In Cherokee legend, the handle of the Big Dipper is seen as a team of hunters pursuing the Bear. The hunt begins in the spring and continues until the Bear sets on fall evenings. Each day, the hunt moves a little further west. In Greek mythology, The Bears were placed in the heavens by Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans). Zeus had fathered a son by a mortal Callisto. Zeus’s angry wife, Hera, turned Callisto into a bear which was almost killed by the son, Arcas. Zeus rescued them, turned the son into a bear and placed them in the sky. Callisto is Ursa Major and Arcas is Ursa Minor. Callisto also has the honor of having a moon of Jupiter named after her.

Saturn will be bright and highly visible all night during June, but the real show will occur during the last two weeks of the month. Jupiter, Venus and Mercury will be in close conjunction in the western sky at dusk. As the month begins, Jupiter is high in the northwest and Venus is low but Jupiter will quickly move lower and Venus will rise bringing them together by month’s end. Mercury will be lost in the Sun through the middle of the month, but will join the other two forming a line that is about 13 degrees long on May 19th. Through the end of the month, they will move closer together eventually appearing within a circle of less than 5 degrees. If the weather permits, watch this planet show as often as you can. They will move from a line to a triangle and back to a line on May 31st. At that point Jupiter, initially the highest, will be the lowest and will disappear into the sunset.

Clear Skies!

Visit Calvin Chrisman’s website at: for links to astronomical sites of interest and past articles.

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