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A handy signpost to stars of the night sky; Stargazing.


THE Plough in spring is an excellent signpost to find other constellations and patterns of stars in the night sky.

The Plough, also known as the Big Dipper, is an easily recognisable saucepan-shaped pattern of stars in the northern sky.

If there is one star pattern that most people know about, it's the Plough. During the spring, it is pretty much overhead through the night and makes a useful stellar signpost.

The name of the Plough probably meant more to people in the past than in modern times, when you're only likely to see a plough hanging on the wall of a pub.

Even the more American name of Big Dipper is becoming outdated and so people expect the Pole Star to be exceptionally bright, but its significance lies in it being useful rather than brilliant.

Try to find the Pole Star, using those pointers as a guide, and you instantly know which direction is north.

You can also take this further.

The angle of the Pole Star above the horizon is the same as your latitude (part of your position on the Earth).

In Shetland, for example, which is about 60 degrees north, the Pole Star is 60 degrees above the horizon. Further south in Ayr (55N), the Pole Star appears about 55 degrees above the horizon.

To early navigators and "the Saucepan" is becoming a more and more common place title for this star pattern over time.

The seven stars that make up the Saucepan are also just the brightest stars in a much larger grouping, or constellation, called Ursa Major - the Great Bear.

Two of the stars over on the right hand side of the Saucepan are known as the Pointers.

These two stars can be used as a helpful trick to find Polaris, the north Pole Star.

Polaris is an average looking star which just happened to appear close in the sky to the north celestial pole.

It always appears in nearly the same position in the sky each night for your location and has been used for celestial navigation for centuries. Most astronomers, it was one of the most useful stars in the sky.

The Pole Star is itself at one end of another grouping of stars, much fainter than the Saucepan, called Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) and it marks the tail end.

If you're using the Pointers, you may like to try using it to point further past the Pole Star toward another easily recognisable constellation called Cassiopeia.

It features five quite bright stars that form the shape of a letter "W".

When the Saucepan is high in the sky, Cassiopeia is low in the sky (and vice versa).

Together they swing around in the sky with the Pole Star as their central pivot, marking out the changes in the seasons.

| David Warrington, FRAS, is resident astronomer at the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory in Dalmellington, Ayrshire. Find out more at


DISTINCTIVE The Big Dipper, now often known as The Saucepan

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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 9, 2016
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