How Can The Pole Star (Polaris) Act As A GPS Device?

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Polaris can act as a GPS device because it is lined up with Earth’s vertical axis. This means that it is lined up with the North Pole. The North Star appears higher up in the sky the more you proceed in the northern direction, and lower the further south you go. This makes it an invaluable ‘compass’, especially in regions like deserts or seas where there are not many reference points.

It’s truly wonderful how those little twinkling dots decorate the vast expanse of blackness in outer space. Not only is it mesmerizing, but it’s also mysteriously calming for people through the ages. People who have ever had a chance to sleep under the stars know what I’m talking about.

There are many stars in the sky – too many to count – but there are a few stars (or groups of stars) that invariably stand out from the others. Polaris, also known as the Pole Star, is one of them.

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The Pole Star (Or Polaris)

The Pole Star is known by a few names, such as the North Star or Polaris, all of which refer to the same star. You have likely heard many things about the Pole Star, including that it’s the brightest star in the entire sky. However, that’s an incorrect claim. There are a number of stars (more than 40, in fact) that are brighter than the Pole Star (Sirius, also known as Dog Star, is actually the brightest star in the sky).

sirius black meme

The Pole Star is named as such because it’s lined up with Earth’s vertical axis; in other words, it is lined up with the North Pole. That’s why it is also known as the North Star. ‘The Pole Star’ is more of a title than a specific name. Since the axis of Earth is not constant (it keeps wobbling!), the title of “Pole Star” changes after a particular period of time. One wobble of the axis takes roughly 26,000 years, which is the tenure of a star being dubber the ‘Pole Star’.

Also Read: Circumpolar Stars: Are There Stars That Never Set?

How Do You Spot The Pole Star?

big dipper pole star

Finding a star in a sky full of twinkling lights may seem like an insurmountable task, but in the case of the Pole Star, it’s not so difficult. First, you should look for a group of stars (a constellation) in a plough-like formation (also known as ‘the Big Dipper’ or the ‘saucepan’). At the end of the plough (the part that looks like a bowl), locate the last two stars. Connect these stars with an imaginary line and let the line extend up to the point where it meets a rather shiny star, directly opposite the Big Dipper.

That, dear readers, is your Pole Star!

Also Read: Do Compasses And GPS Work Normally Near Earth’s Poles?

What Makes The Pole Star So Special?

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the brightness, but rather its location, that makes the Pole Star so special. Why, you ask?

As the name implies, because it lies almost directly above the North Pole!

pole star
Image Source:

When someone says they want to head in a northerly direction, in essence, they want to go in the direction of the North Pole, and the Pole Star tells them exactly where that is. Now you know why it’s called the North Star!

The North Star appears higher up in the sky the more you proceed in the northern direction, and lower the further south you go. It serves as an invaluable ‘compass’, especially in regions like deserts or seas where there are not many reference points. In fact, slaves fleeing the South in 19th century America often used it to help them find their way along underground railroads. They escaped and began a new life by getting help from a twinkling star – imagine how much easier it would have been if they had today’s smartphones!

stars meme

The next time you’re out exploring the unknown and you happen to get stranded in an isolated place where your GPS device doesn’t work well, you’ll know how to find the right path using the natural GPS device that’s staring down at you from millions of miles away.

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References (click to expand)
  1. Pole star - Wikipedia. Wikipedia
  2. Celestial navigation | Astronomy
  3. Polaris is the North Star - EarthSky.
  4. 6 Ways to Navigate by the Stars - wikiHow. wikiHow
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About the Author

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spearheads the content and editorial wing of ScienceABC and manages its official Youtube channel. He’s a Harry Potter fan and tries, in vain, to use spells and charms (Accio! [insert object name]) in real life to get things done. He totally gets why JRR Tolkien would create, from scratch, a language spoken by elves, and tries to bring the same passion in everything he does. A big admirer of Richard Feynman and Nikola Tesla, he obsesses over how thoroughly science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.