There’s nothing quite like gazing up at a starry sky on a clear night without city lights. The way those twinkling diamonds sit on their never-ending black canvas in the country is something that everyone should experience. Without the pollution of city lights, the countryside makes finding constellations easier. And once the constellations are found, The North Star can lead you home.
Everyone has heard of the North Star, but few people know how to locate it, and even fewer people are knowledgeable about it. The North Star, whose scientific name is Polaris, is the star that lies closest to the north celestial pole. This means that when you are facing the star, you will always be looking towards true north. Because of this, the North Star was and still is often used by sailors, navigators, or simply lost individuals to find their way home. It also played a role in the Underground Railroad of the Civil War era, because it helped fugitive slaves find their way to Canada.
In order for the North Star to help determine which way is north, you have to be able to find it in the starry sky. The first step to finding the North Star is locating the Big Dipper. This constellation, also known as Ursa Major and Big Bear, looks like a large ladle or dipper. To me, it also resembles a kite. After the big dipper is located, follow the handle, or string of the kite, toward the last two stars that make up outer edge. (These two stars are known as the pointer stars, because they point to the Little Dipper and the North Star). Then create an imaginary line between these two stars and follow the line until you reach the Little Dipper. Continue following the line to the brightest star at the end of the Little Dipper. This is the North Star. Contrary to what most people believe, the North Star is not the brightest one in the sky, although it is the brightest in the Little Dipper. The brightest star in the sky is actually Sirius.
To verify if you found the North Star, look on the opposite side of what you believe to be the North Star from the Big Dipper. There should be a constellation that looks like a “w”. This is known as Cassiopeia, and it will always lie on the opposite side of the North Star from the Big Dipper.
Along with pointing directly north, the North Star can also be used to find the latitude. This can be done by determining the angle of the star with the horizon. This angle will then be the latitude of the observer.
If you’ve ever watched the nighttime sky long enough and witnessed the constellations move across the sky, you might wonder how the North Star can always be pointing due north. In reality, none of the stars are moving. Yes, they look like they are moving across the nighttime sky, but this is because the Earth is rotating on its axis. This is also why the North Star appears to be the only one not moving. Since the axis points directly at it, all the other stars appear to revolve around it. Just keep in mind that we are the ones moving, not the actual stars.
Technically, the current North Star will at one time no longer be pointing north. This is because the Earth’s axis is changing, although very slowly. But as it changes, eventually Polaris will no longer be due north, just as it was not thousands of years ago. Since Polaris will eventually not lie due north, it will eventually not be the North Star. The role of North Star changes as the axis changes. In 3000 BC, Thuban was the North Star because it was the star that was due north. In 3000 AD, Gamma Cephi will be the next North Star, followed by Lota Cephi in 5200 AD and Vega in 14000 AD. This is a very slow process, and it takes about 26,000 years to complete a cycle.
It is because of both the change of the axis and the rotation of Earth on its axis that the North Star appears to be the only stationary one. And due to this, many legends have developed throughout the years explaining why. One comes from the Native Americans. According to the legend, a young boy wanted to impress his father, so he climbed to the highest place he could find. He struggles and persisted until he was on top of a mountain and towered above the other mountains. When his father found him, there was no way for the boy to get back down, so the father turned him into the star so he could watch over him, and everyone else would know how brave of a boy he was.
One other interesting fact is that the North Star is only visible in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere does not have a specific star as important to sailors and navigators, although it does have a constellation that points south. But if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, and you happen to get lost on a clear night, the North star should help to guide you home. Just bring a compass with you in case it’s cloudy!