« « March 15th: The Messier Objects | March 17th: Echoes from a 430-year-old Supernova » »

March 16th: Using the Sun to Find the North Star

Date: March 16, 2009


Title: Using the Sun to Find the North Star

Podcaster: Ken Brandt

Organization: The JPL/NASA Solar System Ambassadors and Solar System Educators, and the Robeson Planetarium and Science Center   www.robesonsky.com

Description: Most people think that the North star is the brightest, but it is not. It is always within 1 degree of true North, however, and this is what makes it special! I will show you a simple way to find the North star, the other cardinal directions, and help you set up for stargazing, all by going out at a special time we astronomy-types call local noon. Here’s the best part: once you’ve found the North star from your favorite stargazing site, you’ll never lose it; even your grandchildren will be able to use your landmarks to find it if they follow one simple rule, which I will share with you. Note: this presentation is best for those of you that live North of the equator.

Bio: Ken is an astronomy educator, planetarium director, and an ardent fan of space exploration and exploration. Ken loves teaching, and some of his finest hours are spent with students, be they third graders or college seniors. Ken also reminds us that we are one planet, and we all live under the same night sky.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by AAS, The American Astronomical Society  http://aas.org/


Hi, I’m Ken Brandt, and I direct the Robeson Planetarium and Science Center in North Carolina.  If you want to find your way around the night sky in the Northern hemisphere, you should know how to find the most important star in the night sky-the North Star, otherwise known as Polaris.  

The first step to finding the North Star at night is to go outside during the day. If you have done this activity properly, you will be a true ‘star navigator’-you will know how to find your way around the night sky.  You can also learn your cardinal directions, North, South, East, and West as reckoned from your location. You will also be able to use a star chart to find objects and constellations in the sky. You can make a compass rose in your own neighborhood, using the Sun!  

Here’s what you need: a sunny day, a flat area with a fairly clear horizon in at least 3 directions, and a good sense of time.  Ideally, this place should be very close to your location for nighttime stargazing.  Some obvious points: the area should be dark, but SAFE.  You should not go out alone.  

The time to go outside to begin is solar noon.  A good link for determining your local time for solar noon is by going to this website: http://www.srrb.noaa.gov/highlights/sunrise/sunrise.html

For most of us, solar noon has only a little to do with normal clock time otherwise known as ‘mean solar time’, which includes allowances for time zones, daylight savings time, and the like.  In daylight savings time solar noon usually occurs around 1 pm.  In standard time, it usually occurs around 12:00 ‘noon’.   At solar noon, go outside; note the position of the sun and the shadow cast by your body.  Every day, the sun is due south at solar noon, which means that any shadow cast by the sun points north!  Note where your shadow is pointing and find a good landmark along your shadow’s line of sight, which will be on your Northern horizon.  Make sure you can figure out where North is from wherever you are going to observe the stars, as this is where you’ll look to find the North Star!  Mark the spot you are standing with something big that you’ll be able to see in the dark.  Now, while you are facing north, stretch out your arms and point at the horizon.  You will be pointing at a landmark of some sort with each hand.  Your left hand is pointing west, and your right hand is pointing east.  Now turn around and you will see where the sun is in the sky.  Don’t look directly at it.  You will see a landmark along your horizon directly under the Sun-this is south.  You might want to write your horizon landmarks down now so you don’t mix them up later.  You are now done with the daylight portion of this activity.  

Now, before we go any further, ask yourself: ‘Is the North Star the brightest star in the night sky?’  I’ll wait…go ahead and say it out loud…

NO!  For most people starting off in astronomy, this is something of a shock!  The North Star is NOT important because it is extremely bright, but because of where it is.  The Earth’s North Pole points to a spot within one degree of the North Star, so as we spin on our axis every day, the North Star in one spot will stay!

So the North Star is important because it always remains in the same place in the sky.  Once you have found it, the rest of the sky is open for navigation!  

Go out relatively early in the evening shortly after nightfall and find the spot you were standing in earlier, and face your North landmark.  At this time of the year, the Big Dipper is slightly to your right and sticking up out of the ground by its handle (imagine a saucepan stuck in the ground, and you get the idea).  Look for the top two stars of the dipper.  These are the pointing stars, and if you connect them with an imaginary line and continue drawing toward the North (or left) you will run directly into a star that is directly over your North landmark.  You have found the North Star!  You should go inside for a while, and come back out later in the evening, after you have looked around a bit.  Note how the positions of most of the stars will have shifted somewhat.  The Big Dipper, for example, will be further up off the Northeastern horizon.  Find the pointer stars of the Big Dipper again, and check to see if the North Star is still above your North landmark.  Assuming that it has remained steady, you have done it-you really have found the North Star.

Here is the best news of all:  as long as that remains your ‘stargazing spot’, the North Star will always be waiting for you in exactly the same spot!  

As an added bonus, the height of the North Star off the horizon is equal in degrees to your latitude. 

Finally, your grandchildren will be able to take their grandchildren out to that spot, and see the North Star in almost exactly the same place you did, and that is something really special!  Happy stargazing!


End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.

6 Responses to “March 16th: Using the Sun to Find the North Star”

  1. Mo says:

    Fill in the ID3 tags in the MP3 files so they show up in MP3 players rather than the junk default “” which is ugly. You have failed this two days in a row now. This matters to me so much I have deleted your podcasts without listening. I will unsubscribe if this is not attended to.

  2. Some guy says:

    Get a life, Mo. The audio is the hard part. Give ‘em a break.

  3. Stephen says:

    I happen to finish listening to this just as i was getting home, at night, and it was clear out. Up until that moment, i’d been thinking that i know how to find Polaris, and certainly wasn’t going to figure out when solar noon is and put a landmark somewhere along my shadow. But as my driveway is my primary observing spot, and as i was there, it couldn’t hurt to see what sort of landmark i could use. It was only a few seconds, i could say, “there were the pointer stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper, so that is Polaris”. Could my basketball hoop be used? As it turns out, when the basketball backboard just blocks out the street lamp, the post holding the basketball hoop points straight up at Polaris. And, as that’s where the street lamp is blocked, this patch of grass is where the scope should go, at least when there’s no snow.

    I’ve been doing it sub-optimally all this time.

  4. Amanda Gillespie says:

    I found it very interesting that the North Star is the same degree to where I am in latitude. For the most part I use to think that the brightest star was the North Star, but I learn later on that it wasn’t. Now I think it could be Venus, well from Earth it seems to be like a star since its so far away, but actually it’s a planet. Those are my thoughts. Becoming such aware the north Star is will help out tremendously when I try to find other elements in the sky, it would not matter what it would be. The North Star will always be my starting point!

  5. Barbara Britt says:

    This was an interesting piece of information. I honestly did not know that the North Star was the brighest star in the sky. How useful when needing a starting point when observing the night sky and constellations.

  6. Sarah Johnson says:

    The weahter has been so up and down this first week of class especially the unprediatble rain and storms at night. Usually I see the big dipper at night from the edge of my house aligned with my mailbox at night. I live out in the country so on a clear night it’s easy to see the stars and their alignment in the sky. Stargazing is interesting the lab is hard.

Leave a Reply