Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2006 March 17
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The Big Dipper Cluster
Credit & Copyright: Noel Carboni

Explanation: A well-known asterism in northern skies, The Big Dipper is easy to recognize even when viewed upside down. Part of the larger constellation of Ursa Major, the bright dipper stars above are named (left to right along the dipper) Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar/Alcor, and Alkaid. Of course, stars in any given constellation are unlikely to be physically related. But surprisingly, most of the big dipper stars do seem to be headed in the same direction as they plough through space, a property they share with other stars spread out over an even larger area across the sky. Their measured common motion suggests that they all belong to a loose, nearby star cluster, thought to be on average only about 75 light-years away and up to 30 light-years across. The cluster is more properly known as the Ursa Major Moving Group.

Tomorrow's picture: Red Spot Jr.

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