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.

The Great Bear


The Big Dipper needs no introduction – yet it crossed my mind, this celestial constant might deserve a little ponder. Often mistaken for a constellation, the seven stars – Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe – form an Asterism, or subset of stars within a constellation. in this case Ursa Major – the Great Bear.

In November, the Great Bear descends to the lowest point along northern hemisphere horizons. Micmac people of southeast Canada saw this as a sign “earthly” bears went into hibernation, and tree sap returned to the “womb of creation”. Ursa Major appears to touch the earth, winter takes full command. The great bear sleeps, her extremities falling below the horizon yet the Big Dipper manages to hover above the edge of perception.

The Big Dipper doesn’t come and go with seasons, it’s circumpolar, meaning it lies in the same direction as the celestial north pole.  A line drawn outwards from the pole would pass  practically through the Dipper, and intersect with Polaris (the North Star). Earth rotates on its axis around Polaris, stars that are circumpolar to the north pole travel in tight circles around Polaris, therefore visible all year, albeit with a few sways and dips. If the Big Dipper was a clock moving once around Polaris every 24 hours –  the “bowl” would always face Polaris – at 6 o’clock it would appear flat, 3 o’clock standing on the handle, 12 0’clock upside down, and 9 o’clock standing on the bowl.

Lay eyes on the Big Dipper, finding Polaris becomes a simple matter of locating the two outermost stars of the bowl (farthest from the handle) – draw an imaginary line up and beyond for roughly 5 times the depth of the bowl – voila, the North Star.

Think of the Big Dipper as a celestial guide – take comfort in understanding it will never allow you to loose your way. If you see it, you can find north. You don’t need to panic if your GPS craps out – celestial navigation won’t let you down.

http://www.theskyscrapers.org/getting-to-know-the-big-dipper

Image Credit: AlltheSky.com

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Polaris Dippers


Asking people to “look at the damn sky” isn’t much good if they don’t know what they’re looking at. It’s easy to assume everyone can find the big dipper or locate the North Star. In the spirit of “baby steps” – everything you ever needed to know about finding the “dippers” and locating Polaris, the North Star.

The Big Dipper is always found in the north sky – in spring and summer, high in the sky – fall and winter, close to the horizon. Made up of seven stars forming a bowl and handle, the two outside stars of the bowl are Dubhe and Marek –   the “pointer stars” leading to Polaris and the Little Dipper.  Follow them in a straight line and Polaris is always there – a cosmic anchor for “dippers”  making a complete circle of the north star every 23 hours and 56 minutes.

No matter what time of year you look, the two outer stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl always point to Polaris.

http://earthsky.org/favorite-star-patterns/big-and-little-dippers-highlight-northern-sky?utm_source=EarthSky+News&utm_campaign=0a997ec4e9-EarthSky_News&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c643945d79-0a997ec4e9-393970565

Polaris may not be the brightest star in the sky – ranking 50th is inconsequential to a stellar constant above the “celestial north pole”. A star of many names; pole, north, steadfast, lodestar, guiding; a fixed point in the sky responsible for navigation of the ancient world. A gift of cosmic confidence powerful enough to sail into the unknown, the only GPS northern hemisphere travellers needed to find their way home. A beacon of hope for American slaves heading north to freedom – and once you know how to find it, a way back to the car when you’re lost in the woods.

Lost in the Woods


Imagine yourself lost in the woods without a compass or GPS. An accurate sense of direction could save your bacon; so which way is north or south? In the Northern Hemisphere the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. At noon the sun will appear in the middle of the horizon and directly south. Walk facing the sun and you will be heading south, sun at your back sees you trudging north. For the Southern Hemisphere simply reverse the process.

Not noon, don’t know the correct time – here’s another method. Find a stick about a metre long, drive it straight up into the ground of a sunny spot. Mark the end of the shadow it casts with a rock. This will be west. Wait about 15 minutes then mark the end of the cast shadow with another rock. This will be east. Draw a line between the two points for your east/west position and another at a 90 degree angle for your north/south line.

No sun? Look for moss on trees – moss on the southern side is usually greener and thicker. Ants also build their hills on the warmer southern side of trees or hills,just  as snow melts faster on southern exposures.

What if night has fallen? If the moon rises shortly before sunset the bright side will face west. If it rises much later around midnight, the brightly illuminated side faces east. If you can’t see the moon but the sky is clear enough to find stars, look for the Big Dipper, next find the Little Dipper and draw an imaginary line between the two brightest stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper to the brightest star in the handle of the Little Dipper. This should take your eye to Polaris or the North Star; the bright middle star in the constellation Cassiopeia.

I’ve only ever been lost once, and that was in a department store when I was four. If I ever find myself lost in the woods – at least I’ll be able to find my direction home.

http://adventure.howstuffworks.com/survival/wilderness/true-north.htm