Finding Polaris – Embrace the North Star

Ah Polaris, commonly known as the North Star – humanities guide since the dawn of time. Located directly above the north celestial pole, northern hemisphere skies rotate around this near constant pole star. Knowing where to find Polaris means you’ll always know which direction to travel. Face Polaris, stretch your arms out sideways – the right hand points due east, the left due west. About face and you’re pointed south.

Very many bright concentric circles in sky around a bright irregular dot, trees in foreground.

Ken Christison captured these glorious star trails around Polaris, the North Star. He wrote, “For the most common and often the most spectacular star trails, you want to locate Polaris and compose the image so it is centered horizontally and hopefully you can have a bit of foreground for reference.”

To find Polaris locate the Big Dipper, focus on Dubhe and Merak, two stars forming the outermost edge of Big Dipper’s bowl. In your mind’s eye draw a straight line to the tip of Little Dipper’s handle – voila, that’s Polaris the North Star.

Think of northern hemisphere skies as a clock with Polaris at the centre, the line from Dubhe and Merak to Polaris as the hour hand. The Big Dipper rotates once around Polaris every 23 hours, 56 minutes. A few minutes short of a day, equivalent to 361 degrees in 24 hours. As such the North Star moves ever so slightly with each passing day. What never falters is the hour hand from the outermost bowl of Big Dipper to Polaris. Find the Big Dipper, you’ll locate the North Star. Do that and you’ll never be lost in the woods.

Diagram: White sky with four black Big Dippers in a circle around Polaris.

If you’re in the northern U.S., Canada or at a similar latitude, the Big Dipper is circumpolar for you, always above the horizon. Image via burro.astr.cwru.edu.

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