Jennifer is a high school teaching assistant during the week, and she presents planetarium shows at a science museum on the weekends.
When asked to say the names of any stars, most people can at least name "the North Star." When I present planetarium shows, "Where's the North Star?" is one of the most common questions I get after one of the rare programs that does not include a look at the northern sky. What is it that makes the North Star so popular? Sure, it's much easier to remember the name of the North Star than it is to remember star names such as Alberio or Fomalhaut, but what else is special about the North Star?
What Is the North Star?
Another name for the North Star is "Pole Star." A pole star is a star that is lined up with Earth's axis and is therefore lined up with either the north or south celestial pole. Technically, this is more of a title than a specific name. The axis of Earth wobbles (this is called "precession"), and is therefore not always lined up with the same star. It takes 26,000 years for one complete "wobble," so it takes a long time for the title of "pole star" to pass on from star to star. Sometimes, such as during the first thousand years BC, there is no pole star at all. When there is a pole star, it appears more or less fixed in position, unlike the other stars that appear to move across the sky as the earth turns on its axis.
Currently, the star at the northern celestial pole is Polaris, which comes from the Latin name, stella polaris, which, interesting enough, means "pole star." One wonders if somebody will change the name in the year 3000 AD when a star called Alrai will be closer to the pole than Polaris.
Polaris is not exactly at the pole of rotation, though it's only 7 tenths of a degree away. This means it makes a small circle around the actual pole as Earth rotates.
What Kind of Star is Polaris?
First off, let's get a common misconception out of the way. Polaris, the current North Star, is not the brightest star in the night sky. It's the brightest star in its particular constellation, but there are over 40 stars in the sky that are brighter than Polaris. The exact rank changes periodically as more accurate instruments are used to measure star brightness, but Polaris is usually ranked between 45 and 50 in the lists of brightest stars. In addition to this, Polaris is a type of variable star - specifically, a Population I Cepheid Variable - which means that its actual brightness varies.
Polaris is also called Alpha Ursae Minoris, because it's the brightest star in Ursa Minor, the Little Bear (also known as the Little Dipper). It is actually a multiple-star system made up of at least three stars. The largest star in the system is called simply Polaris A, and is a supergiant that has about six times the mass of the sun. The other stars in the Polaris system are much smaller dwarf stars.
Where Can I Find the North Star?
Polaris is the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, or the tip of the tail of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. There's a trick you can do with the Big Dipper to find it. Find the Big Dipper, then go to the stars at the end of the Dipper's bowl - Merak and Dubhe, also known as "the pointer stars" - draw a line between those stars, and then continue that line. The line should take you right to the North Star. You'll always find the North Star in the northern sky.
Why Is the North Star Special?
The significance of the North Star has to do with location rather than brightness.
Throughout much of history, humans didn't have GPS or road signs to help them find their way around. They often used the sun and the stars for navigation, especially in areas like oceans and deserts, where there aren't many reference points. Since you will always find the North Star in the northern sky, you can use it to find north, even in the absence of landmarks. Once you've found north, you can figure out south, east, and west as well. When slaves were escaping the south in the 19th century, they often used the North Star and the Big Dipper (which they called the Drinking Gourd) to help them find their way along the Underground Railroad.
Since the North Star appears higher in the sky the further north you go (and lower the further south you go), navigators have also been able to use it to help find their latitude. Ancient mariners knew the North Star's altitude - the angle between an object, an observer, and the horizon - from their home base, which made it easier to find their way home after a voyage.
Now, if you ever get lost at night when the skies are clear and your GPS isn't working, you can use the North Star to figure out your directions and maybe even get a general idea about your location.
Questions & Answers
Question: how did Polaris help sailors and campers?
Answer: It helped them navigate their way by confirming which direction was North.
Question: Why do stars move in a circle around Polaris?
Answer: The stars aren't technically moving around Polaris, but they appear to do so. The axis, or the North Pole, is more or less aligned with Polaris, so the other stars appear to circle it as the Earth turns on its axis.
Jordan on June 21, 2019:
What's so special about Polaris? Only the truth that it's where God's throne is. If you look at Revelation 4:3 you'll see it describes the colours of the throne, referencing stones as the likeness of the colours of it - these are: jasper, sardine, and an emerald rainbow around the throne. If you then take a Nikon Coolpix P900 or Coolpix P1000 camera, zoom in all the way to where Polaris is located, you'll find it perfectly describes God's throne in this passage in Revelation . A few verses later, it also describes a 'sea of glass' before the throne - this, I believe, is referring to the firmament that's just below God's throne - what the throne essentially sits upon. The firmament is described in further detail in Genesis - which is 'beaten out like a 'molten looking glass' (on a globe based belief of the earth, you can't exactly beat thin air, can you? This is further evidence we don't like on a globe...), which covers this earth (like a dome). This also explains why 'the elite' have an antarctic treaty in place to prevent proper exploration of the antarctic ring that surrounds the outer edge of the world (don't worry, there's a 300 foot high ice wall keeping in all the world's water - we're not falling off anything!). There's a lot of truths that have been hidden from us all. If you look up 'Is this where God's throne is?' by YouTuber 'eftupworld', you'll see what I'm talking about with Polaris being God's Throne. I came to the same conclusion that YouTuber did, which was pretty odd! It's fascinating to realize that God isn't so far away from us, and that we truly are special when we're the only thing God cares about, and that all these other so called 'planets' don't exist (they're actually stars), and we don't live in an ever expanding 'multiverse', it really is a UNIverse (as in one), and we don't live on a globe spinning 1,000 miles per hour (we'd all be dead in a second). We've been lied to our whole lives right from school - being taught we live on the CGI'ed, photoshopped, painting of earth. Don't believe it. We live on a flat earth. If you're a truth seeker like me, for more info on that, check out Rob Skiba's videos on the flat earth - particularly his 'debunking flat earth 101 video' - if you can find it - YouTube tends to try and make truth videos disappear, or at least be the last video you find, while they make controlled opposition and mockery videos top priority. Hope this helps. Polaris truly is special. It's the only star that doesn't move, and every astral photographer instinctively knows there's something special about it, well that's why it's special - because it's God's Throne!
M on October 17, 2017:
Wow..This is absoulty amazing...Thanks for that info...
sherry on February 01, 2017:
This is very cool stuff about the North Star keep it going
beautiful on June 14, 2016:
Very good!!! I found this sooooo helpful
Macenzie on May 14, 2014:
I think your information about the North Star is very accurate
Jennifer Bird (author) from Michigan on April 27, 2013:
Thanks for the comments! I started stargazing when I was growing up as well. I can't remember if it was my mom or dad who first got me into it, though - they both had a hand in it.
I hope you found the North Star, FlourishAnyway!
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on April 26, 2013:
This brought back memories. When I was growing up, my father introduced me to stargazing.
FlourishAnyway from USA on April 26, 2013:
Going to try to find it tonight!