Identifying and Understanding the North Star

The connection between astronomy and the North Star has been seen for as long as human beings looked up with delight at the sky. In ancient times they looked for the same North Star that we try to find today. The North Star has always been used for navigating in a northern direction, and it can be identified by land or sea, but to put it even more simply, it’s the brightest star within the Little Dipper. Let’s say it’s the middle of the night and we are lost. We don’t have a clue where we are going or which direction we came from, so we then look up at the sky and locate the North Star. When we find it, we know that when we walk toward it, we will be heading north.

In order for a star to be called, “The North Star,” we must be able to see it from Earth and it has to be close to the north celestial pole, so it’s also called a pole star. Today Polaris is designated as the North Star, so to see it, just look for the Little Dipper, and the North Star will be at the end of the handle. Simple, isn’t it?

Polaris won’t always be the North Star, even though it is right now. Over time, changes in the Earth’s rotation will cause Polaris to be seen differently and within a different part of the sky, which means it will no longer be the North Star. Still, we don’t need to worry, because there will always be a North Star. It will simply be a different star in a different spot in the sky, and besides, the earth most likely will take a very long time to rotate enough to cause the North Star we see today to change.


Phil Plaits wrote an article on what he described as, “Bad Astronomy.” According to Phil, a lot of people think that the North Star or Polaris is a very bright light. Some believe it’s the brightest star of all, but that’s just a misconception according to Phil. He says that the North Star is only average when it comes to brightness and wrote, “It’s just conceit when people believe the North Star is the brightest and most important star, and just as conceited as believing we on Earth are the center of the universe.”

The Earth is spinning on its axis like a top and we define the points where this axis intersects the earth’s surface as the North and South Poles. Since we are positioned on the surface of the Earth, we don’t notice we are spinning, but we do see the sky and our spin makes it appear that the sky revolves around us. If we stood on the equator and looked up to the sky, we’d see stars flying by as the Earth spins. They’d appear to rise in the East and set in the West, but if we are in the North Pole, it would appear like the stars are spinning around a point straight up. This point is called the North Celestial Pole and as if the North Pole was projected up to the sky. All stars seem to spin around this particular point, just as the Earth spins around its own North Pole. That’s why this point in the sky seems so special to us who are standing here on the surface of Earth, but if we were on a different planet, we’d see a different spot in the sky and exclaim, “Hey, there’s the North Star!”

Even so, the way to find the North Star, here on Earth and within our universe is the same as it’s always been. Just use the Little Dipper as your guide, but remember it isn’t that the North Star is all that bright. It’s simply the brightest star within the Little Dipper, and there are lots of big, bright stars in the sky.


My research taught me to look at the sky differently and at least be less mis-led when it comes to how the universe works. For the source of this and more information on the North Star go to these sites: