Ursa Minor, the lesser bear, is a very important constellation because it is home to Polaris, the north star. It is also home to the Little Dipper which is very easy to find once you’ve actually found it. If you don’t see it right away just nod and say “Yeah. yeah I see it” but then put someone else in charge of steering the boat.
You would think the Little Dipper is only famous because of the north star but it’s also because of its even more famous big brother, the Big Dipper. The two dippers come as a set but by themselves they are not constellations. They are each part of constellations, the big bear and the little bear, but technically the dippers are asterisms. The word “asterism” simply means “easily recognizable group of stars.”
The old story goes that Jupiter was off cheating on his wife because, you know, it was Tuesday. Okay so he and a nymph named Callisto did the bedspring boogie and she pops out a man-baby, Arcas. One day, Jupiter’s wife Juno comes snooping around hoping to catch him and his girlfriend all naked. So, in godly fashion… “POOF” Jupiter changes Callisto into a bear. Some say it was actually Juno who changed Callisto into a bear but hey, these old stories are like Bob Dylan songs, everyone has their own version.
To continue, everything might have been fine but suddenly man-baby Arcas sees the bear and shoots her with an arrow. I mean, Arcas is still just a little whipper snapper mind you, but he’s pretty good with a bow because his daddy is the king of the gods. So anyway, now things are a proper mess what with dead mommy bear, a crying brat, and a suspicious wife still creeping around in the woods. Jupiter turns all the peripheral characters into stars, and puts them into the sky as constellations which, let’s face it, is the way he solves most problems.
Just as there are many variations on the bear story, there are lots of freaky add-ons to explain the extra long tails on the two bears. For instance there’s one where a crocodile yanks on their tails, stuff like that.
Once upon a time there was Greek astronomer named Dickus. He often went out in the fields to look at the stars. One night he came across two bears in a field, a big bear and a little bear. Dickus looked up at the sky and said “Those two easily recognizable groups of stars up there need names. I think I’ll call them the big bear and the little bear.” Now it so happens Dickus had a friend named Doucheius who overheard him and said “But Dickus, those thingies in the sky have long tails and bears have short tails.” So Dickus said “It’s just names, don’t take everything so literal. I’m hungry, let’s go out for Greek food.” The End.
Ursa Minor doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of interesting deep sky stuff hiding among the crooks and crannies of the Little Dipper, at least not of the sort available to small telescopes. But it does have NGC-6217 and hoo-boy it’s a doozy. Use any scope larger than 6 inches and this barred spiral will make a big impression on your friends and your family. But if you truly want to be crowned geek-of-the-week, be sure to explain to them that it is a “starburst” galaxy.
You see, most galaxies have gone for broke and spent their wad of cash, they’re low on gas, running on fumes. Even our own galaxy turned almost all of its gas into stars a long time ago. The age of rapid star birth has come and gone. Oh we still crank out a few stars each year, maybe 6 or 7, nothing like in old times when the yearly quota was probably up in the thousands. But there are some galaxies out there, like good ol’ NGC-6217, that are currently still doing big business. We think they stole a bunch of gas from smaller galaxies that were unable to defend themselves. It’s a galaxy eat galaxy universe out there and the little ones make tasty snacks.