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How to find the North Star Polaris Astronomy Guide to the Stars And Constellations

Updated on July 13, 2016

The importance of how to find The North Star - Polaris

Often incorrectly regarded as the brightest star in the sky Polaris the North Star remains one of the most important stars to locate. Not only does it give a true north direction on earth but it also opens the door on continual constellation discoveries within the night sky.

The aim of finding the north star for directional purposes and of course to help you align to the circumpolar stars and constellations are two amazing facets about this wondrous star. However it's worth noting that this guide will only help you if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris exists within the northern hemisphere only, if you are based in the southern hemisphere this guide will not remain advantageous to you.

When we think in terms of direction as in East, West, North and South its important to remember that Astronomy also uses these direction guides. In Astronomy this basic navigation fact is useful in helping the Astronomer navigate around the night skies.

When you think of the Earth's North and South you automatically think of the Poles. Now if you imagine a line running through the core of the earth until it emerges at both ends and disappears into space, then you can extend this understanding into space and the celestial sphere. This is very useful if you are interested in photographing the night sky for Fine Art photographs

Ursa Minor and Ursa Major

There's one star in particular that for all intents and purposes becomes pierced by this space bound line from the North pole on Earth. That star is named Polaris, or as it's often referred to in English the Polestar or Lodestar. The way to locate Polaris is to identify its home constellation. Polaris (North Star) resides in the Ursa Minor constellation.

You can find this star very easily by following perhaps the most famous and easily recognisable constellation in the night sky Ursa Major (also known as the Big Dipper, Plough or its Bayer Designation α UMi). By drawing a line in the sky (you can use your fingers) from the 2 stars furthest away from the handle - the first brightest star you will come to will be Polaris - pretty easy really.

See the image below from the Hubble Space Telescope to show how to find Polaris.

How to find Polaris

Alaskan Flag featuring Polaris the North Star

But is Polaris really the North Star?

For the time as it is now - yes. However due to the earth spinning slightly out-of-alignment, or as it is known in Astronomy precession, the Celestial North pole will shift over the course of 25,000 years - but this is not a major concern to humanity at the present time.

The legends of the North Star

Often Polaris is thought to be the brightest star in the Sky however this remains an incorrect myth. The North Star has a Magnitude of 2.02 (Magnitude is used to measure the brightness of a star, the lower the number the more brilliance is shown) it is in fact the 48th brightest star in the northern hemisphere.

The Alaskan Flag and its connection to Polaris the North Star

An interesting fact is that the Alaskan flag uses Polaris and the Big Dipper as its main design

The idea for the flag was the creation of 13 year old Benny Benson during the year 1926. When the state of Alaska asked its citizens to submit their ideas for a flag design Benny submitted his and won the competition. Not bad at all for a 13 year old.

It really is surprising! Finding the north star remains one of the easiest ways to orintate yourself with the night sky. A simple astronomy skill can also help if your lost in the wilderness!

A Video on How to Find the North Star

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    • johndwilliams profile image

      johndwilliams 3 years ago from Essex England

      Ahh so they are inter-linked - thanks for sharing

    • johndwilliams profile image

      johndwilliams 3 years ago from Essex England

      Amazing I never knew thanks for sharing

      Thanks John

    • profile image

      Donald 5 years ago

      Sorry I mean the little dipper is in the constellation of the little bear rather, my mistake sorry

    • profile image

      Donald 5 years ago

      The big dipper and little dipper is not constellations but asterisms rather, an asterism is any group of stars in a constellation that makes up a particular shape and the big dipper is in the constellation of the big bear and the little dipper is in the constellation of the little dipper

    • johndwilliams profile image

      johndwilliams 6 years ago from Essex England

      Glad to help! Indeed I wait for clear skies constantly, then I dash out for a quick bit of Astronomy

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      I always wondered how this was done! Great guide! Now I just have to pray for a clear night!