Astronomy

Identifying and Understanding the North Star



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Most people think of the story of the three wise men when they consider the North Star. Everyone knows how the story goes. They hear of the birth of the Baby Jesus, and they search for him to present him with gift of frankincense and myrrh. Unable to locate the lord, they are guided in their journey by the North Star brightly shining in the sky. As a young child, I thought every brightly shining star was the North Star, but of course, I was wrong. So, how can the North Star be identified and understood by star gazers?

The North Star, or Polaris, is the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation and one of the brightest stars in the sky. The North Star is located on the handle of the Little Dipper. It is close to the North Pole and serves as a navigational marker in the northern hemisphere. The star hand a small circle surrounding it.

The North Star is approximately 431 light years from our planet Earth and is fairly easy to identify in the night's sky. Unlike a lot of stars in the sky, it doesn't appear to move from its circular enclosure of stars; therefore, the stars stay above the horizon the farther north you go. The star is directly above the heads of individuals in the North Pole while the other stars seem to move in the night's sky.

In addition to the lack of mobility of the North Star, it can be identified by looking at the stars surrounding it. The Lambda Ursae Minoris is a red star up and to the right of the star and Yildun is in the upper right corner. The North Pole is in an almost central location within Lambda and Polaris.

The location of the North Star makes it a perfect starting point for astronomers to map the sky and for sea navigators to measure direction. Before the invention of the telescope, astronomers use this star to draw pictures of the universe and show the location of the other stars and constellations. Sea-faring people also use the North Star to guide them home at night. Even nomadic people use the North Star to guide them at night.

Amateur star gazers can use their telescopes to check out the North Star by looking for the star that seems to stand still in the sky. The Office of Naval Research website also offers directions on how the star can be identified.

The brightness of the star likely leads to a number of the stories surrounding the star. This includes the Christmas story of the three wise men being lead in one night to the location of the Baby Jesus.

Sources:

http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~kaler/sow/polaris.html
http://www.onr.navy.mil/focus/spacesciences/observingsky/constellations4.htm

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