The North Star is the brightest in the night sky, right? It’s actually only the 48th brightest!
The brightest is Sirius, the “Dog Star,” which is visible in the southwest come dark this month. It will soon be gone for the summer, rising again in November.
Not so the North Star because that it lacks in brightness it more than makes up for in consistency—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere.
The North Star or North Pole Star is better known as Polaris.
Polaris has a special place in the night sky—literally. Earth’s north axis points straight at Polaris, by chance, so while all other stars travel across the sky and those near the poles move in circles around it, Polaris appears to remain perfectly still.
Look at the image above of the northern sky, which is made from a long exposure of about two hours. At the center of those circles is Polaris!
But how do you find Polaris when you’re looking at a regular starry sky?
You first need to find the Big Dipper, which should look something like this is you go outside soon after dark anytime this month:
“Spring up, fall down” is how to remember the position of the Big Dipper.
To find Polaris from anywhere in the northern hemisphere first locate Merak and Dubhe at the end of the “bowl” of the Big Dipper.
Draw an imaginary line from Merak to Dubhe, and carry on for about five times the distance between those two stars and you’ll come to the only bright star in that area of the night sky—Polaris!
Polaris is the tip of a “Little Dipper,” which is always opposite the Big Dipper.
Also called Ursa Minor, all of its other stars are fainter than the Big Dipper’s, so you’ll probably need a pretty dark sky to see it.
Polaris is 430 light years from us, and it will appear higher in the sky the further north you travel. At the north pole, Polaris is always directly above.
If you stand at the north pole between October and March, not only will you see Polaris above you, but it will never stray from view; since the Earth’s axis is pointing away from the Sun for six months, the Sun never appears over the horizon—and so the north pole is in constant darkness.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.