One of the most famous stars in the night sky, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere, is Polaris, the North Star. Technically known as Alpha Ursae Minoris, as it is the brightest star in Ursa Minor the Little Bear, its other names are fitting only temporarily.

Before we get into this further, here’s how to find the North Star: It is not the brightest star in the sky despite its distinction, nor is it otherwise remarkable, but it is a faithful guide for anyone needing to know their way in the night - assuming the sky is clear! Prior to satellite telemetry, ship captains and airplane pilots would navigate by the stars, and the North Star was invaluable.

It is the one easily visible star that never seems to go anywhere. As the world turns (no, not the soap opera), the constellations of stars appear to rise in the east and set in the west, in the same way the sun makes its daily trek in the daytime sky (ever see the sun in the night sky?). Constellations and stars that never set are referred to as “circumpolar.” They circle a point in the northern sky known as the north celestial pole, right next to Polaris.

Your latitude on the globe is easily determined by noting how high above the north horizon the North Star shines. On the ocean from the Earth’s equator, the North Star would be right on the horizon; at the North Pole, it would shine straight overhead.

To find the North Star, look due north (opposite where the nun is at noon), and look not quite halfway up in the sky (assuming you live in mid-northern latitudes). On a late September evening, you will see the familiar Big Dipper riding low in the northwest. The two stars in the front of the Dipper’s “bowl” appear to point right at the North Star.

Polaris just happens to be very close to the north celestial pole, making it seem to be a pivot for the rest of the sky to circle around. It wasn’t always so. The earth’s axis of rotation has an extremely slow wobble, making a circle on the sky every 25,800 years. An immense amount of time by human standards, it makes a difference only when looking back or forward at least hundreds of years. The earth’s axis changes where it is pointing in a circle 47 degrees wide. If you go back 3,000 years, the north celestial pole lay very near the star Thuban in the constellation Draco the Dragon. Thuban is easily seen though a bit dimmer than today’s North Star. Thuban was the North Star when the Egyptians were building the pyramids, and in fact built the pyramids to align with Thuban.

Through the ages, the north celestial pole spends great lengths nowhere close to any star easily visible to the unaided eyes. We are fortunate to live in an age when we do have a bright star to mark the north. In the past 500 years, when seafarers were exploring the globe, Polaris was reasonably near the north celestial pole, just in time to aid their navigation when mankind needed it the most.

The slow wobble of the earth’s axis is caused by gravitational tugs from the sun and moon, pulling on the earth’s uneven shape (it is a bit wider at the equator). The wobble, known as the “Precession of the Equinoxes,” was first realized by Greek astronomer Hipparchus around 130 B.C.

The same situation happens “Down Under” as well. Southern Hemisphere residents, however, do not have a bright “South Star” during this epoch. The closest naked eye star to the South Celestial Pole is Sigma Octantis. This star is magnitude 5-1/2, just visible without optical aid, in a dark sky. Polaris is second magnitude.

Measurements made by the Gaia spacecraft in 2018 gave a distance of 445.3 light years for the North Star.

Polaris is also a nice double star, visible in telescopes of three inch aperture or more.

Last quarter-moon is on Sept. 21 and new moon is on Sept. 28.

Keep looking up!

Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.