Destination Ursa Minor

Hey, Sky Fans! The other night, the skies cleared up a bit; not completely, but enough, and I headed outside with my tripod. It was a nice night, friendly warm air, and friendly, warm people were out and about. I got chatting with a neighbor as I took this photo.


Yeah. Huzzah. That’s what happens when I point my little pocket-sized clicky camera at a fairly unremarkable part of the sky, set it to ISO 400 and leave the shutter open for 15 glorious seconds. You can probably make out the Big Dipper off-center toward the upper-ish right. It’s kind of cool that with such a long exposure, you can see a little color in the stars.

A couple of years ago, I was doing a talk for a bunch of sky fans about the north end of the sky. One of the things that came up as a constant point of frustration, one of the biggest I have under the skies, especially the needlessly bright, light-polluted skies where I live, is I can’t see the Little Dipper. Whenever I’m out, I look for it. “Maybe today’s the day!”

Today’s never the day. It’s become one of those almost-ridiculous things for me. Other people want to see the Milky Way reaching high overhead on a summer night, or supernovas or total eclipses. I want to see those things too, but once, just once, I want to see the Little Dipper, to quote Darth Vader, noted sage, with my own eyes.

It’s a famous asterism, if only for what it’s not. It’s not the even-more-famous Big Dipper, but if people went through the trouble to specify that there’s a big, there must be a little. It’s a tough one, though. Polaris, the north star, is its brightest, and it’s only the 50th brightest in the night sky. In real life, close-up, it’s an exciting place, a triple star system, with a yellow supergiant at the middle.

There’s a lot going on there. From here, though. it’s pretty humdrum, not really that bright. And, like I said, that’s the brightest one of the Little Dipper’s bunch. I try and try to see it, though.

As I talked with my neighbor about baseball, I poked a couple of buttons and revved the camera up to ISO 1600; four times the light-gathering power:


A couple of weeks ago, fellow blogger Saturn Citizen wrote about working to get a better view of it, and gave me the kick I needed to give it another try when the skies cooperated. This was the best I could do. That tree is a nice artsy touch.

Part of the problem with it being so dim is it’s easy, at least for me, to forget which way the Little Dipper sits. Do the Dippers’ bowls line up? Their handles? Are they opposite? This is where some detective work came in. Polaris is the brightest. The second brightest, Kochab, is across the way from it, the other end of the asterism. Those two are, with a little work, visible in my sky, but the rest is washed out. Even Polaris can be a little tough to track down. So, I go back to the standard observers’ advice, which I give during talks, and I write about. The Big Dipper’s “Pointer Stars,” Merak and Dubhe, are helpful.

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Back inside, I stared and stared at that photo, and then… pow! There it is. I even checked it against Stellarium. Can you see it?


I still haven’t seen it with my naked eye. With the summer haze coming, I can’t imagine I will soon, but here’s a start. How about you? Have you ever had any luck? It’s a tough one, isn’t it?

I’ll catch up with you later. Clear skies, everyone!


9 thoughts on “Destination Ursa Minor

    1. Sounds like the start of your next book! ๐Ÿ™‚ Navigating by the stars is a lost art, for better or worse, but I have to say, it’s really saved my butt a few times. It’s fun (well, you know… “fun”) to tell the kids to look out the window for the Big Dipper, with the slightest of worried panic in your voice. That’s north. The rest just follows from there.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good mnemonic! Your skies must be good and dark if you can see it. I can sometimes, on dark, moonless summer nights, see the faintest wisps of the Milky Way high overhead; kind of “If you know it’s there, you know it’s there,” but the Little Dipper is lost.

      Liked by 1 person

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