North Star

How to Locate the North Star

North Star
Lane Olinghouse's image for:
"How to Locate the North Star"
Caption: North Star
Image by: Author

The North Star is well-named; its location in the night-time sky enables one to determine where north lies no matter where one stands in the northern hemisphere. For this reason ocean-going navigators and land wayfarers alike depended on the North Star for thousands of years prior to the advent of the compass to maintain a desired direction of travel.

Nowadays, of course, modern technical devices such as GPS systems usually make it unnecessary to rely on the North Star to find one's way.
Still, people do occasionally find themselves lost and disoriented with no such device available. In such survival situations, locating the North Star may become imperative. Knowing where north lies in relationship to your surroundings enables you also to determine quite quickly the other directions: west, east, south.

A fortunate evolutionary occurrence of things astronomical has positioned the North Star almost perfectly parallel to a line drawn through the north and south poles of the Earth. From this celestial position, the North Star provides a pivotal point around which all the stars and constellations seem to turn as the Earth rotates on its axis.

Finding the North Star becomes a fairly simple exercise when you realize two of those constellations can help you pinpoint its location.

The Big Dipper constellation* (astronomical name, Ursa Major or Big Bear) will prove the easier of the two to use in your search. It so happens that the two stars forming the outward lip or edge of the dipper's "bowl" point almost directly at the North Star. Although not the brightest star in the sky, the North Star is the first bright star to be seen along that imaginary line.

The second constellation, the Little Dipper (astronomical name, Ursa Minor or Little Bear), lets you find the North Star as well as verify its location. Not quite so visible as the larger of the two constellations, the Little Dipper has the North Star as a part of its formation: the bright star at the very end of its handle.

Once you make out the two constellations, you will notice the Little Dipper appears to be pouring its contents into the Big Dipper. Big Dipper, Little Dipper and North Star form an interesting and pleasant aspect in the night-time sky.

And, with the North Star as your guide, you can quickly orient yourself as to the four geographical directions. Face the star and you face north. West lies to your left, east to your right and south to your rear.

*Though the more familiar term constellation is used here, neither of the dippers are true constellations, but instead celestial formations known as asterisms located within larger constellations.

More about this author: Lane Olinghouse

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