8 Ways to Find the North Star

Find the North Star

Can you find the North Star in this image? It is the star that is closest to the middle of the concentric rings of star trails. This is a long exposure photograph of real stars as seen over the course of several hours during the night.
A long exposure photograph showing all of the other northern sky stars circling around the North Star. Image provided by ESO.

You can use these 8 ways to find the North Star (Polaris).

But, first, here is the classic way to find the North Star! Use the pointer stars of the Big Dipper. This is a reliable method for finding the North Star that has been taught to generations.

Find the Big Dipper to find the North Star

Look at the two stars in the picture below. One is Dubhe – which is labeled a for alpha, and the other Merak – which is labeled b for beta. These form the outer lip of the Big Dipper’s cup. These two stars can be used to create an imaginary line to “point” at the North Star.

The distance from the pointer stars to the North Star is about 5 times the distance between Dubhe and Merak.

The North Star is shown in this image as a red dot labeled “Polaris.”

You can find the North Star using the two pointer stars of the Big Dipper (Dubhe and Merak) The North Star is also called Polaris and is part of the constellation Ursa Minor.
Use the two pointer stars of the Big Dipper to find the North Star (Polaris). Picture credit user Bonĉ source Wikipedia

These instructions work for the 80% of people who live in the northern hemisphere – anywhere north of the equator. For the 20% of people who live in the southern hemisphere the North Star is not visible because it is blocked by the Earth. As you move south toward and past the equator, the North Star gradually sinks lower in the sky until it stays completely below the northern horizon.

The North Star and the South Star

However, there is a kind of “south star” and if you live in the southern hemisphere you can use that star to find due south! There will be another article teaching how to find the “south star.”

The North Star has been known by many names

The North Star is also known as Polaris, the Pole Star. Its official name is Alpha Ursae Minoris (named Alpha because it is the brightest star of the Little Bear), but – according to this list gathered by astronomer Chris Dolan – it has also been called these deliciously mellifluous names: Alruccabah; Cynosura; Phoenice; Lodestar; Tramontana; Angel Stern; Navigatoria; Star of Arcady; Yilduz; Mismar.

The North Star is unique because it stays almost perfectly still

Find the North Star in the night sky by finding the star that moves the least. All the other stars appear to move through the sky in great arcs during the night. The North Star barely moves during the night. This is because the Earth’s axis points directly at the North Star.

That means that if you could visit the north pole and look directly up you would find the North Star right above your head! The North Star stays in the same place no matter where you see it from on Earth.

Star trails long exposure of circumpolar stars as viewed from near the North Pole.
Star trails around the North Star as seen from near the North Pole. Credit: David Malin

The North Star is unique because it is in a dark part of the sky

Once you learn how to find the North Star you may find it easy to find again. This is because the North Star is in a dark part of the night sky and there are not very many other bright stars around it.

8 ways to find the North Star

  1. Look north and guess – you can find the North Star in a relatively dark region of the sky and there are not many other bright stars around it. If you are south of the equator, head north before you try to look for the North Star because you won’t be able to see it until you get the Earth out of the way.
  2. Use the Big Dipper cup stars as pointers. This is the classic way to find the North Star. The two stars of the Big Dipper cup are known as the “pointer stars” and they show you which star is the North Star. The North Star is about 5 lengths of the pointer stars away.
  3. Camera timelapse – ooh! I love timelapse. A great timelapse of the night sky is an unbeatable way to relax. By taking a timelapse of the starry sky you can detect the apparent motion of the stars. If your timelapse covers enough of the sky  (with a wide angle view) chances are that you will be able to identify the North Star because it is the star that moves the least.
  4. Phone app – grab a planetarium app like SkySafari. Almost every star app these days has a “Augmented Reality” view that you can use to find Polaris. Just use the AR method of holding the phoone up above your head and searching around or you can type the name of a star into the search box in the app.
  5. Observe the sky, patiently measuring the movement of every star. The one that moves the least is Polaris. This might take a long time because the stars move pretty slowly.
  6. Mark a known spot as your North Star viewing spot. This is easy to do with a product like the Star Spot. You can return to that spot any time of day or night  to sight the star – the North Star is always in the same place in the sky.
  7. The North Star is located in between the two easy-to-identify constellations The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia – the Queen.
  8. Memorize its color and the stars around it – this is easier than it sounds! Polaris is a yellow supergiant and has a faint yellow tint. Also, the North Star is located in a region of the Milky Way that has fewer stars so it is surrounded by dark areas of the night sky.

Myths about the North Star

  1. “The North Star is the brightest star in the sky.” – Nope, that distinction belongs to Sirius, the Dog Star. The North Star is the 50th brightest star. The North Star is still quite bright and it is easy to find.
  2. “The North Star will always be the North Star” – This is a myth. In fact, there have been several “North Stars” throughout recorded history. The ancient Egyptians saw Thuban as their North Star.
  3. “There is a South Star.” – While there is a star located close to the southern pole position (two stars in the Southern Cross point to the faint star Polaris Australis in the constellation Octans), it is not nearly as obvious or famous as the North Star.

The North Star is a very special star! We learned how to find it.

Where is the Sun?

Where is the Sun right now?

Can’t see the Sun? Maybe there is something blocking it. Here is a list of 10 surprising things that can block the Sun.

IMAGE of floating/flying things overhead (in roughly size order) that can block all or part of the SUN: Flying animals (Bugs, Birds/Flying Mammals), Flying objects (Drones/Balloons/Airplanes/Helicopters/Rockets/Bombs/Blimps), Smoke/Clouds, Spacecraft (Satellites/Space Stations/UFOs), Asteroids, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Earth.
Wondering “Where is the Sun?” These are 10 things that block the Sun.

Where is the Sun during the day? On a clear day, this is a very simple question. The Sun is “up there” in the sky – it’s a big, bright, fiery ball and it’s generally a yellowish orange color. You just point to it – there it is, up in the sky, the Sun.

However, many things can block the Sun. Usually, it is clouds that block the Sun, but not always. Let’s take a tour of the astonishing number of things that can block the Sun.Click here to continue reading…

Blue Moon, Dark Moon, Nose Moon, Tail Moon

What is a Blue Moon?

The year 2018 is a Blue Moon bonanza! There was one in January and one on March 31st. The next one won’t arrive until October 2020. But, don’t worry… we’ve got 3 other types of moons lined up for you.

A blue moon tinted blue to make it look like the moon is actually blue. A blue moon means 2 full moons in a calendar month.
A Blue Moon. (This image was tinted to make it blue. No, a Blue Moon is not blue.)

The Basics

A Blue Moon happens when there is a Full Moon on the 1st* day of the month and a Full Moon on the last* day of the month. Two full moons in one month!

In other words, a Blue Moon is when there is a full moon twice in the same month. These two full moons always happen on the 1st or 2nd and the 30th and 31st of a month. “Blue Moon” is just a name for the second moon in that month – the moon does not turn the color blue.

Read on to learn about how the Blue Moon came to be and some suggestions for giving the other moon phases “Blue Moon” style names when they appear twice in a month. Suggestions are: Dark Moon, Nose Moon, and Tail Moon.Click here to continue reading…

Astronomy Koan

Astronomy Koan – Definition

A family views the visible orbit path of the earth.
A family views the visible orbit path of the earth.

An astronomy koan is a short, easy-to-memorize phrase that distills a key teaching about astronomy (especially physical astronomy).

The words are simple enough for a child to learn, but they carry complex insights about scientific observations.

The astronomy koan is a mnemonic that has layers of meaning or presents an ambiguous or challenging observation in a pithy phrase.

Try memorizing one of these – you can bring these with you everywhere.

Four Physical Astronomy Koans


That star rose earlier today.

The moon moves toward the dawn.

Night is where you are.

Same Sun all night. Dusk to the left, dawn to the right.


What do you think about these?

Do you know any astronomy koans?

Share your ideas in the comments section.

Stellarium – Find the Humanity Star

A new satellite called the Humanity Star looks like a disco ball

Update Apr. 1, 2018.

The Humanity Star is no longer an active satellite – it has fallen out of the sky: https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/22/17144208/rocket-lab-humanity-star-satellite-new-zealand-astronomy

However, even though the Humanity Star is now gone, this article still teaches you how to load satellites into Stellarium. So, read on for a quick tutorial on how to track any satellite in Stellarium.

Looking for information on how to track the Humanity Star any satellite location using Stellarium astronomy software?

Here is a quick tutorial on how to find the Humanity Star any satellite using Stellarium.

You can track the position of the Humanity Star with Stellarium
The Humanity Star satellite before launch – still on the Earth.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck announced that the company’s rocket had placed a special satellite in a 90 minute orbit around the Earth.

A lot of people want to see this new “star” in the sky. Stellarium can help you do that.

If you don’t have Stellarium, you can download a copy here. And I have a few tutorials that can help you get started with this amazing piece of software.Click here to continue reading…

Quiz – Can we see the Sun at midnight? Where is the Sun?

Can we see the Sun at midnight?

Yes. We can see the Sun at midnight. But, only if we are at one of the polar regions during the Summer season.

A quiz – seeing the Sun at midnight – don’t scroll til you try to answer!

When you see the Sun “rising” in the morning at dawn you are facing the east.

When you see the Sun “setting” at the end of the day you are facing the west.

Assuming you are not above the Arctic circle and not too close to the equator… if you could look right at the Sun (when the night is exactly half over) – by looking through the Earth – which cardinal direction would you be facing? East, West, North, or South?

Looking north or south to see the Sun at midnight?
A compass rose showing the cardinal directions.

Click here to continue reading…

See Mercury and Venus orbits during the day

Your hands and arms help you see the orbits of Mercury and Venus and the shape of solar system

Question: If you could see the orbit of Venus would it fill the whole sky?

The answer might surprise you!

You can use your hands and arms to see the size of the orbits of the solar system’s inner planets: Mercury and Venus.

Imagine (as pictured below) if the orbit of Mercury were visible as a red oval and the orbit of Venus were visible in green.

Use your hands and elbows to see Mercury and Venus orbits any time of day or night. The orbits of Mercury and Venus can be seen.
Two hand spans show Mercury’s orbit, elbows show Venus’s orbit.

Physical Astronomy – see Mercury and Venus orbits

Caution! Do not look directly at the Sun without proper solar safety glasses on.

Turn toward the Sun, hold your arms out straight, hands up in the air with fingers spread wide and thumbs touching. Your pinky fingers now span the width of the orbit of Mercury and your elbows span the width of the orbit of Venus.

Both of the entire orbits of Mercury and Venus orbits would be visible in the sky all at once – if they could be made visible during the day.

Click here to continue reading…

Galaxy Rise

Physical Astronomy by Daniel Cummings

A still more glorious dawn awaits Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise A morning filled with 400 billion suns The rising of the milky way.

The Sun rises. The Moon rises. Stars rise. The Galaxy rises – twice.

Each day the Earth rotates and sky objects (seem to) rise in the Eastern sky. The Sun, the Moon, the Stars, and the Galaxy rise at various times.

The Sun “rises” once-a-day at the start of the day.

The Moon “rises” once-a-day at different times of the day and night depending on the moon’s orbit around the Earth (its phase).

The Stars “rise” once-a-day – all night long, one after another and in groups.

The Milky Way Galaxy “rises” twice a day – once on its bright (center) side and then 12 hours later on its dim (outer arm) side.

We can orient our bodies to the rising of the Milky Way. And we can experience our daily movement as “plunging through” this flat disk of stars.

Click here to continue reading…

Walk to Mintaka

Physical Astronomy by Daniel Cummings
Mistakable rises toward the zenith as you walk toward the equator
As you walk toward the equator, Mintaka appears to rise higher in the sky.

In this post we will learn how to use one bright star of Orion’s belt to visualize the Earth’s equator.

Mintaka is a Star in Orion’s Belt

When you look up at the winter sky in the northern hemisphere, Orion and his famous belt are impossible to miss. The belt is made up of three stars of equal brightness.

One of these stars is called Mintaka and it is a guidepost for finding the Earth’s equator in space. Click here to continue reading…

Arms around the ecliptic

Learn to see the ecliptic

Physical Astronomy by Daniel Cummings

Ecliptic Arms

The sun follows the same path through the sky every day.

Sun up. Noon. Sun down.

The sun starts the day in the east in the morning, rises high in the sky at noon, and settles down again in the west for a nap at night.

See the ecliptic

Here is an exercise to discover that path – the ecliptic.

Click here to continue reading…