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Double Dippers

April 3, 2010

The most familiar of all star patterns wheels high across the sky on spring nights. The Big Dipper is high in the northeast this evening, and about the same height in the northwest at first light tomorrow.

As night falls, the dipper appears to "pour" its contents toward the northern horizon and into another dipper: the Little Dipper. It's not nearly as bright as its bigger cousin, but under dark skies, far from city lights, you can make out a faint dipper pattern. It's anchored by Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the dipper's handle.

The dippers aren't constellations on their own. Instead, the Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, the great bear, while the Little Dipper is part of Ursa Minor, the little bear.

The constellations share more than just dippers and bears. They're part of the same story in Greek mythology.

The story says that Zeus, the king of the gods, fell in love with a young woman named Callisto. They had a child together -- a boy named Arcas. But Zeus was afraid that his wife, Hera, would harm Callisto, so he turned her into a bear.

Many years later, Arcas was stalking a bear -- unaware that it was his own mother. Zeus stopped Arcas from shooting Callisto just in time. To keep them out of trouble, he turned Arcas into a bear and flung them both into the sky.

Look for the bears -- and the dippers -- circling around Polaris throughout the night. We'll have more about the Little Dipper tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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