How to Find Polaris, Our North Star


In September, we introduced you to our North Star, Polaris. If you caught our posting, you know we promised a follow-up post on a way to find the “star that does not walk around.” If you didn’t, here’s a snippet from that post…

If you ask people what the brightest star in the sky is, quite a few would automatically say “The North Star.” However, the North Star, also known as Polaris, is not an especially bright star. Its official name is Alpha Ursae Minoris and it’s the brightest (alpha or α) star in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the “Little Bear.” In Native American lore, the Pawnee name for Polaris means “Star That Does Not Walk Around.”

There are many “classes” of stars. Class II are called Bright Giants. Polaris is a bright giant, yet it is only the 49th brightest star in the night sky. Just an average-looking star set among countless other stars. As we said before, what makes Polaris special is that it sits one-half degree from Earth’s north celestial pole. As a result, Polaris appears “fixed” in the night sky while all other stars appear to rotate around it.

Polaris is the star at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper asterism. See the associated star chart. The stars of the front bowl of the Big Dipper asterism always point to Polaris, making the star fairly easy to find.

Now, let’s find it!

  1. First, go outside and let your eyes adjust to the dark. It takes our eyes about an hour to fully adjust. Beware the moon! If there is even a crescent moon, don’t look at it. That will ruin your night vision again.
  2. Houston is at latitude 29 degrees, so the Big Dipper this time of year is close to the horizon. Face north and find the distinctive bowl and handle shape, just above the horizon. Do your best to be in a location with no light pollution to your north.
  3. Find the two stars at the end of the bowl, Dubhe and Merak. These are your “pointer” stars. Visually draw a line between these two stars and extend it out about 5 times, and you will eventually arrive at Polaris.
  4. Or, your clenched fist is roughly 10 degrees held at arm’s length. Another way to find Polaris from the horizon is to hold your clenched fist out and climb the sky about three times, or 30 degrees.

Try finding Polaris and let us know how you did on Twitter: @TexasAstronomer

Until next time, Clear Skies!

About Leonard Ferguson

My name is Leonard Ferguson, and I will be your guide to all things magical in our Fort Bend skies. I am an active amateur astronomer, have lived in Richmond TX for over 25 years and am a longtime volunteer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science's George Observatory. The night sky is something we all share, and it's a fascinating and wondrous place. I hope you will join me in this journey!