How to find the north star

How To Find The North Star (Polaris)?

The North Star provides navigators in the Northern Hemisphere with a true constant, a veritable anchor in the heavens, due to the fact that its position never changes. So long as you can locate the Big Dipper, you’ll be able to locate the North Star, or more formerly, Polaris. From here you can figure out in which direction you need to move in order to get to where it is you need to go. 

How to find the north star
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Now, there’s one obvious caveat here: if you happen to be under cloudy skies, all bets are off if you don’t have a compass. If you were not blessed with a sense of planning or foresight before venturing out into strange turf and had not bought yourself a reliable compass, then if you get lost, you had better just stay put until the clouds are gone, the sun rises, or, you are able to see which side of the trees the moss is growing.

That said, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume we are under clear skies. Under these conditions, all you really need is a good pair of binoculars (check out my articles Best Binoculars for Astronomy Beginners or Best Binoculars for Astronomy Under $500) and knowledge of a few tips and tricks to tell you which of those little spots of light in the night sky is our North Star. Once you have mastered these skills you are well on your way to finding your way out of the woods or off of the lake to where you want to go.

Quick Fact About the North Star…

While the North Star appears to us here on Earth as a singular star with the unaided eye, the truth is it is actually a triple-star. This means that it is not just one star’s light that we are seeing, it is actually a combination of three stars locked in a gravitational orbit with each other.

One of these companion stars, forming the stellar system, becomes apparent when viewed through small telescopes or astronomy binoculars readily available on Amazon. The other is not so easy to see. In fact, up until recently we didn’t even know it existed, as it hugs the Polaris star so tightly that they are virtually indistinguishable without a high powered telescope such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

The star we observed is so close to Polaris that we needed every available bit of Hubble’s resolution to see it.

Nancy Evans, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Tricks to Locating The North Star

So what are these tricks? Well, the first thing is to be able to locate the Big Dipper. From there it is an easy matter to find the North Star. It’s that simple. And if you are lost on the lake or stuck in the bush, knowing how to do this could save your Canadian bacon.

So let’s get right to it:

  1. We are concerned with two constellations: the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. The Big Dipper is not a constellation per se, but rather an asterism, a salient and easily recognizable star pattern which happens to form part of the constellation Ursa Major, the ‘Bigger she-Bear.’ The Little Dipper is the constellation: Ursa Minor, the ‘Little she-Bear.’ As one professor conducting an evening class describes it, the two celestial configurations relate spatially to one another such that the Little Dipper appears to be dumping its contents into the Big Dipper.
    How to find the north star
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  2. Find the Big Dipper. There are seven stars in all: proceeding from the end of the handle, these are Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe.
    How to find the north star
    Image source: wpclipart.com – public domain
  3. Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe
    form the Big Dipper’s  bowl; the latter two comprising the side of the bowl furthest from the handle. Merak and Dubhe are the so-called ‘pointer stars.’ Merak is at the bottom of the bowl and Dubhe is on the bowl’s lip.
  4. Starting out from Merak, draw a line through Dubhe and out the top of the bowl. The line will soon intersect the star of the show, Polaris. Ye Olde Lodestar (no, it’s not the name of my favorite pub) forms the terminus of the Little Dipper’s handle.
  5. Turn yourself to face the North Star and you are facing north. Is that the direction you wish to be going in? If not, you know what to do because you now have a point of reference, a starting point from which to proceed. If you don’t know what to do, you would not have known enough to get yourself lost in the first place.

How You Can Use the North Star To Tell Time

Imagine Polaris to be the center of a clock, its hour hand formed by the line that connects Polaris with the pointer stars Dubhe and Merak. Every 15 degrees Merak advances along its trajectory is the equivalent of one hour passing.

Now, the Big Dipper is moving relative to the Polestar even as it completes a full circle rotation every 24 hours. Knowledge of this permits us to pinpoint the time of day (or rather, night, since it isn’t visible to us during the day).

In early March at the midnight hour, the Big Dipper appear directly above Polaris. At 6 a.m. the Big Dipper will have tracked counter-clockwise 90 degrees, now appearing to the left of Polaris (due West).

At noon the ‘pointer stars’ Merak-Dubhe will be lined up directly below Polaris, but that’s useless to since we can’t see it in the daytime; besides, the Sun can call noon for us.

Come suppertime (6 p.m. in our house), the Big Dipper will be found to the right (due East) of Polaris. All of this is determined by the Earth’s rotation and all of it changes once you factor in the Earth’s track around the Sun.

If it were June instead of March, we would find the Big Dipper precisely due west of Polaris at midnight, whereas in March it indicates 6 in the morning. If it were September, we’d find the ‘pointer stars’ in a line directly below Polaris at midnight (noon if it were March); in December, we’d find them in a line extending due east from the North Star.

No matter the season, the position of the Big Dipper moves 90 degrees counter-clockwise along an arc relative to the North Star in 6 hours’ time, or 15 degrees per hour. Every three months, our starting point, the midnight hour, advances 90 degrees counter-clockwise.

Additional Reading

Well I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, “How to find the North Star?”, and have found it useful. If you did, consider checking out my other articles that are full of equally good tips and tricks for everything amateur astronomy and stargazing. You’ll find them here: