How to Find 'Polaris' - the North Star




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Do you live in a big city permeated with light pollution?  Never been camping?  Or has just no one ever pointed it out to you?

Polaris, the North Star, is an important navigational star because its position in the sky is almost exactly (within a few degrees) lined up with the rotational axis of the Earth. This means that no matter where you are on the Earth (so long as you're in the Northern Hemisphere) if you face toward Polaris you are facing North. Finding Polaris is an incredibly useful night time navigation technique that's helped everyone from the Egyptians to the Vikings find there way on the open seas. But it also is one of the easiest stars to find - something my Dad taught us as kids - and can serve as a great entryway into the world of star gazing and constellations. In fact, locating it involves two of perhaps the three most recognizable constellations in the northern hemisphere (two of which we'll mention in a second; the third being Orion, the hunter).

Let's get started.

**Note**  All photos in this instructable were found on the internet, and are the property of their respective owners.  I will cite as much information about original sources as I can find.  [I wanted to take the photos myself, but unfortunately the rainy season in Japan could just as well be named the cloudy season.  (;_;)    ]

**Apology**  Sorry for the poor quality of some of these photos.  It turns out star fields don't hold up well under the image compression.  Feel free to click the [ î ] in the upper left corner to view the full size images if you're having trouble.

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Step 1: Locate the Big Dipper - (Ursa Major)

The first step is to find the constellation of Ursa Major, commonly known as the Big Dipper.  It is perhaps the most easily recognizable constellation in the night sky, and looks like a large spoon or perhaps a wheel barrow.

It is composed of seven bright stars - three in the handle and four in the head of the spoon.  If you can find it in the picture above, great.  If not, look at the next photo.

Step 2: Trace a Line to the North Star

Next, imagine the line connecting the two front stars of the Big Dipper, which I've marked in red.  If you continue this line off to the upper right, the first bright star you come to is Polaris, the North Star.

Step 3: Checking That It Really Is the North Star

But with the North Star being such an important and useful star, you want to be sure you've got the right one.  After all, there are a lot of stars up there, and they do all look pretty similar.

Luckily, not only is Polaris in line with two stars from the Big Dipper, it is in fact a part of the Little Dipper itself, which makes it easy to check if you're looking at the right star.  Like the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) is composed of seven stars, three in the handle and four in the head of the spoon (marked in red).  The Little Dipper floats above its bigger brother, and is angled as if it were pouring water into the larger spoon.  Polaris is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper.

If you can recognize and identify the relationships between these 14 stars, you will always be able to find the North Star.  It helps that they are some of the brightest stars in the night sky.

Step 4: Test Your Skills

Of course the best way to test your new found star-gazing abilities would be to go outside in the country and take a look at the heavens.  But if that's a bit unfeasible at the moment, then try your hand at finding the North Star in these next two photographs.  The first is rather easy, the second is maybe challenging.

The answers are given in the second and fourth photos.

If you're a person whose known this simple trick for years, then I hope this instructable will inspire you to share your knowledge with others.  If you're a person whose never looked at the stars before, then I hope this piques your interest in the night sky.  And if you're a person who is inexplicably lost in the wilderness but somehow has a wi-fi connection and decided to check for guidance, than I hope this helps you find your way to civilization.

Happy star gazing!

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12 Discussions


2 years ago

I've looked at the stars for many years. My uncle showed me the big and little dipper when i was a 7 yr. Old starried eyed boy. But i never figured how to find the north star. Thank you.


2 years ago

Thanks so much! ♡x


3 years ago

Polaris Star - World Transformer Brahmastra (English)

5 years ago on Step 3

Just want to thank you for this great article. Very helpful. Will be locating the Northern Star tonight. Cheers.


5 years ago on Introduction

Unfortunately, knowing how to find the Big Dipper will only work about 60% of the time. That's because half of the night only the "bowl" of the Big Dipper (part of the constellation Ursa Major) will be visible to most observers in the Northern Hemisphere. The constellation "Cassiopeia" looks like a broken 3 when rising, a broken M when overhead, and a backward 3 when setting. Cassiopeia is on the *opposite side* of Polaris from the Big Dipper. When the Big Dipper is too low to find reliably, Cassiopeia is usually findable. There is a bonus to finding Cassiopeia, too. a faint hint of the Milky Way is there, Perseus (where the Perseid Meteor streams from) and the Andromeda Galaxy can all be found by first finding Cassiopeia. In the photo below, Cassiopeia is in the upper left and all you see of the Big Dipper (lower right) are two of the stars.


5 years ago on Introduction

Hey, even if you didn't take the pictures, Thanks for putting that together, I finally leaned how to find the North star.


7 years ago on Introduction

This only works if you live north of the equator btw. Polaris at the equator is located at 0 degrees, or basically at the horizon.

Therefore, a good way to figure out where Polaris is is to figure out how north you are from the equator – the more north, the higher up from the horizon it's gonna be.

For example, in Hawaii, you can measure up about 20 degrees from the horizon and you know if you're facing north, you can find it that way. A local trick is to hold up a shaka hand with your pinky at the horizon, and your thumb facing upward, and holding your arm straight forward, your thumb should just be on or right below Polaris.

I learned using the big dipper though.  You can further find Arcturus and Spica by following the arch of the dipper handle.  Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica.

Also note that Polaris is the handle end of Ursa Minor, or the little dipper.

1 reply

8 years ago on Introduction

to a newbie, too many star arrangements look like the Big Dipper. I suggest, for teaching purposes, going out with someone who knows how to use a compass (declination and all that). Determine North. From that, determine the North Star. From that, determine the actual Big & Little Dippers.
After that lesson, it should vecome easy to locate the Dippers and the pole star whenever afield


8 years ago on Introduction

You mean there's another way besides using 'Sky-view' on a smart phone?!? Who'd of thought... ;)