If you were to ask someone to name the brightest star in the night sky, the majority of people would reply with “the North Star!” It’s understandable that most people believe this to be the case, as it sure does stand out at night.
However, the North Star, or ‘Polaris’, is a star of only average brightness. In fact, there are many other stars that are a lot brighter than Polaris. Surprisingly to some, Polaris is only number 48 on the list of brightest stars in our solar system.
Polaris is often the first star observed and pointed out by keen astronomers. It’s a great starting point if you’re wanting to get into stargazing.
The North Star is also used as a guide. Campers and explorers often use Polaris as a reference point to help them find their way when they get lost.
The North Star can be located using several different techniques. You can use other constellations to help you, providing that you’re able to identify which direction is north.
You can use a compass to help you to do this. If you don’t have a compass- not to worry. There are a few natural indicators that can help you figure out which direction is north.
Why is it called the North Star?
Polaris is by far the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, more commonly known as the Little Dipper. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, Polaris is located in an important space. This is because the axis of Earth is pointed almost directly at it.
During the course of the night, Polaris does not rise or set but remains in very nearly the same spot above the northern horizon all year round while the other stars circle it.
This means that at any point during the night at any time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, you can readily find Polaris. If you were at the North Pole, it would be directly overhead.
Because the earth is spherical in shape, the position of the North Star depends on the location of the observer. Because of this, the angle between the northern horizon and the North Star will be equal to the observer’s latitude.
For example, if you’re observing the North Star from the equator, it will lie on the northern horizon. However, if you were to move northward to somewhere else, Polaris would equal the latitude.
So if you traveled to somewhere that was 20 degrees latitude, the North Star would be located 20 degrees above the northern horizon. If you kept moving, this trend would continue until you reach the geographic, not magnetic, North Pole.
How do I find the North Star?
If you’re inexperienced at observing the night sky, you may find it tricky to locate the North Star.
Fortunately, there are a few ways in which you can make the hunt a little easier. Here are some neat ways to help you to locate the North Star.
Use constellations to help you
The most popular way to locate the North Star is by using the Big Dipper constellation as a guide. The Big Dipper can be seen in the night sky if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s known for being shaped like a long-handled saucepan and is easy to spot.
Once you’ve located the Big Dipper, you can use it to find the North Star. Find the two bright stars that make up the side of the bowl of the saucepan shape. These stars can be used as pointers to find the North Star.
Trace an imaginary line connecting these two stars. Now extend that line five times the distance between the two stars. You should eventually come across a bright star. This is the North Star.
The Little Dipper can also be used to help you locate the North Star. The Little Dipper is a smaller reflection of the Big Dipper constellation and can be found nearby.
If you’re able to locate the Little Dipper, you’ll notice that it is made up of 7 stars. 3 of these stars form a base and the remaining four form the long outstretching handle. The last star extending outwards here is the North Star.
Use technology to help you
With smartphones becoming increasingly popular and practically taking over the world, it’s no surprise that they’re being used to observe the night sky. There are many cool gadgets and apps out there that can help you locate and identify constellations.
If you have an iPhone, we recommend trying out an app called Sky Guide. It provides a detailed and interactive map of the night sky that moves along with you as you move your phone.
So even if your view is obscured by trees, mountains, or clouds, you’ll still be able to know where the stars are hiding. For Android users, there’s an app called Stellarium Mobile which is pretty much the same as Sky Guide, but it has slightly better resolution.
Although smartphones are the obvious first choice, books shouldn’t be disregarded when learning about constellations.
A star atlas is a great alternative way to locate stars. They also don’t run out of battery and cost very little money. Every star atlas will differ in style and layout slightly, but most will include handy charts and maps that will allow you to locate the North Star on pretty much any given night.
If you’re taking a star atlas along with you while you’re out stargazing, be sure to bring a flashlight!
Find the direction North to help you
If you have no idea what direction you’re facing, it can be extremely difficult to locate constellations, especially the North Star. If you don’t have a compass, there are a couple of tricks to finding true north without any equipment.
You can take two sticks, one bigger than the other, and put them into the ground vertically. Lay down next to the sticks and wait for a star to appear between them in your path of vision. Keep staring at the star for a couple of minutes, and if it moves upwards, you’re facing east.
If it moves downwards, you’re facing west. If it moves to the left, however, you’re facing North. Once you’ve located which direction is North, finding the North Star is a breeze.
If you’re extremely lost and you don’t have the means to carry out any of the previous steps, consider checking if there’s any moss on nearby trees.
Moss needs a damp environment in order to survive, so moss will usually grow on the northern side of vertical structures because the north side gets the most sunlight.