The North Star gets its name from its position in the sky. It can always be found due to the North no matter where you are on Earth unless you are at the North Pole when it will be directly above you, hence why it is also called Polaris. Although it is the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor (the small bear), it is not the brightest star in the sky (which is Sirius).
The North Star is located nearly in a direct line from the Earth’s axis of rotation and thus stands almost motionless in the night sky — it is the one star that stays still in the sky with all other stars appearing to rotate around it. This being said it is not perfectly aligned with Earth’s access and therefore does move slightly, its movement can be seen in long exposure photography such as star trails.
Although not the brightest of stars it is still relatively easy to locate even from a built-up area. Using the asterism of the “Plough” (or Big Dipper / Saucepan) located within the larger constellation of Ursa Major (the Great Bear) follow the handle into the bowl. At the opposite end of the bowl to the handle, you will find the stars of Merak and Dubhe. This pair of stars is nicknamed “the Pointers” as if you draw a line through these two stars and continue the line upwards you will eventually find Polaris.
Knowing the location of the North Star is critical when aligning an equatorial telescope mount. The height above the horizon of the North Star changes depending on your location and equates directly to your current latitude. For example, if you are located in South Wales at a latitude of 51° then Polaris appears 51° above the horizon. Most modern equatorial mounts now have polar scopes to help you locate Polaris with some having Apps to assist in setting the mount up.
Our thanks go to Allan Trow from Dark Sky Wales for putting together this guide.