Is the North Star the brightest star?

Most people are not aware that the North Star is not the brightest star in our solar system, however, it is one of the most important.

Polaris, also known as the North Star, is one of the stars in the northern circumpolar constellation of Ursa Minor. The star shines so bright that people are able to view it with the naked eye. It is important to note that the North Star is not the brightest star in our galaxy.

© NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, it is a crucial star in our universe, as people use it for navigation purposes. It sits more or less directly above Earth’s north pole, along the planet’s rotational axis. This is the imaginary line that extends through the planet, and out of the north and south poles. Earth rotates around this line.

The star is situated quite close to the point in the sky where the north rotational axis points, which is a spot called the north celestial pole. As Earth rotates through the night, the stars around the pole appear to rotate around the sky. Over some time, the stars each sweep out a circle around the celestial pole.

The farther a star is from the pole, the larger the circle it travels around the sky. Some stars thus travel a great distance every night. However, Polaris is different. Since it is so close to the celestial pole, it travels in a very small circle over 24 hours.

This means that Polaris always stays in roughly in the same place in the sky. It is therefore a very reliable way to find the direction of north. Polaris would appear directly overhead if people stood at the north pole. However, if people stand further south, it will indicate the direction of north.

People can locate Polaris quite easily on a clear night. It is recommended that people just find the Big Dipper before locating the two stars on the end of the cup. These stars point the way to Polaris, which is the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.

© NASA