Finding North with the North Star
As I often find myself out in the wilderness in the dark, I like to know as many ways to find direction as I can. In an earlier post I talked about how you can use the moon to find south, you can read about that by clicking here. Of course I always carry a compass in my survival gear or around my neck, but being able to look up at the sky and quickly determine direction is a good thing to be able to do. One of the most well-known ways in the northern hemisphere to find north is the North Star.
The North Star, also known as Polaris, is the current northern pole star, meaning that if you drew a line from that star to the earth, it would hit the North Pole straight through earth to the South Pole. It has been the North Star for thousands of years, although a different star will be in the right position to take the role of North Star roughly one thousand years from now.
Probably the most common method of locating Polaris is to follow along the line of the “pointer” stars in the cup of the Big Dipper. These pointers are the two stars farthest from its “handle.” The distance between the two pointer stars and Polaris is nearly five times greater than the space between the two pointer stars.
It’s also very helpful that Polaris is a moderately bright star, and it is the brightest star in the Little Dipper constellation. Another easy point of identification is that Polaris is at the end of the “handle” on the Little Dipper.
The main constellations to learn are the Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper or the Plow, and Cassiopeia, which are always visible on a clear night. The North Star forms part of the Little Dipper handle and can be confused with the Big Dipper. Prevent confusion by using both the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia together.
The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are always directly opposite each other and rotate counterclockwise around Polaris, with Polaris in the center. This is important to know because the Big Dipper will not always be in a position with its open cup facing upwards; sometimes it will be sideways or pointing down depending on the time of year (see diagram below).
Cassiopeia has five stars that form a shape like a “W” on its side. The North Star is straight out from Cassiopeia’s center star.
After locating the North Star, locate the North Pole or true north by drawing an imaginary line directly to the earth. This has been a proven way to find north on a clear night in the northern hemisphere for centuries, and it is still accurate.