THIS is a great time of year to spot what is probably the most famous patterns of stars in the whole of the night sky - the Big Dipper, writes STUART ATKINSON.

Contrary to what many people think, The Big Dipper it is not a constellation, it's an asterism, a pattern of stars lying within the borders of a constellation that is immediately obvious and striking to the naked eye. Also known as The Plough (or Charles' Wain, i.e. wagon), the Big Dipper asterism is a pattern of seven naked eye stars that really does look like a huge spoon, or ladle, in the sky, with a long curved handle connected to a bowl or scoop. At other times of the year it is balanced on the end of its handle, or high overhead, but at this time of the year the Big Dipper looks at its best - and is at its most obvious - because it is oriented parallel to the horizon.

Finding the Big Dipper is really easy. All you have to do is look to the north after twilight and there you'll see the Big Dipper right before your eyes. If you're not sure which direction is north, just look to the right of the direction the Sun set in earlier in the evening. The seven stars of the Big Dipper are immediately obvious to the naked eye and all appear blue-white on a clear night.

The Big Dipper lies within the borders of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, and forms the tail and hindquarters of the mighty bear. Faint stars connected to the Dipper represent the bear's head and legs, but from our light polluted towns and cities they are very hard to see. But travel out into the countryside and they will pop into view, and you will be able to see the outline of a bear in the night sky quite easily.

Stuart Atkinson's new book is A Cat's Guide To The Night Sky