Identifying and Understanding the North Star

You do not have to be an astronomy buff to bask in the glorious beauty of the night sky. Its mysterious realm of darkness is blanketed with the speckled lights of the stars that we wish upon before we lay our heads down to dream. And among all of the stars in the sky, one has the most notoriety and outshines the rest; the North Star.

The North Star, or Polaris as it is currently known as, has been used for centuries as a means of guidance. It is not only the brightest star in the sky, it is also within one degree of being true north of the earth’s axis. So when someone has become confused about the direction they are traveling, they need only look upward and begin again.

Polaris is part of the constellation Ursa Minor, better known as the Big Dipper. So to find the North Star, you look for its constellation and then at the end of its basin, you count two stars upward. This will lead you right to your treasure. There is an option however, if you are more of a Little Dipper fan. The North Star is the brightest star on the tail of the Little Dipper.

The North Star is not only used to aid someone once they have already lost their way. It is also used to chart navigational maps in advance and is used to measure astronomical latitude. This is because we map latitudes to equivalent sky positions.

Amazingly enough, it seems to many as though the North Star is in a fixed position within our sky. It appears as though all of the other stars and constellations are moving around it. While this is not true, this way of thinking has sparked many legends and folklore among various cultures throughout the centuries. The most famous is a Native American myth about a young man by the name of Na-Gah.

Na-Gah was a young Native American who wanted to earn his father’s respect by proving his bravery. To do this, he climbed the tallest cliff he could find. He battled many difficult conditions to reach the top, but once he did, he realized that he was at the peak of an extremely high mountain which offered no way down. When his father looked for him and found Na-Gah stuck so high above, he didn’t want his son to suffer for his demonstration of bravery. So he transformed Na-Gah into a star that can now be seen and honored by all living things.

While this Native American myth is heart touching and gives many something to believe in, it’s truth is a scientific impossibility. Over time, the earth’s axis slowly changes. And by its technical term, the North Star is the star that is most closely aligned with the earth’s axis. So as the axis moves and changes, the star that is deemed as the North Star will also change.

With Polaris being the star that is currently closest to the axis and being one degree true north, it is our current North Star. It has previously been known as Thuban (the brightest star in the constellation Draco), Vega (the brightest star in the constellation Lyra), and Alpha Cephie (the brightest star in the constellation Cepheus). It will be known by these names again someday.

No matter what name a mad scientist chooses to give it, we star gazers know it as our beloved North Star. And as we are staring into the sky, on a warm summer’s night, the only thing that really matters to us is that we have at least one star to wish on. Thank you, Na-Gah, for your bravery.