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04/08/2019 – Ephemeris – How to find Polaris, the North Star

April 8, 2019

Ephemeris for Monday, April 8th. Today the Sun will be up for 13 hours and 7 minutes, setting at 8:18, and it will rise tomorrow at 7:09. The Moon, 3 days past new, will set at 11:54 this evening.

The most useful of the navigation stars for the average person is Polaris, the North Star or Pole Star. It is very close to the point in the sky that the Earth’s axis points to in the north. Currently it is about three-quarters of a degree from the pole, about one and a half moon diameters. In 2110 or thereabouts it will approach to slightly less than a moon diameter from the pole before slowly heading away. Polaris is always closer to true north than a magnetic compass in Michigan. To find it use the two stars in front of the Big Dipper’s bowl to point to it. This time of year the Big Dipper is above Polaris, so the pointer stars, that’s what they are called, point down to it. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the faint Little Dipper.  The reason for Polaris’ motion is the slow 26,000 year wobbling of the Earth’s axis, called precession.

The times given are for the Traverse City/Interlochen area of Michigan. They may be different for your location.


Pointing to Polaris

Ursa Major and Minor, the Big and Little Dippers. See how the two stars at the front of the bowl point to Polaris. It happens that the pointer stars are close to the 11th hour of right ascension (longitude in the sky). The right ascension lines converge at the north celestial pole, just as the longitude lines converge at the Earth’s north pole. Created using Stellarium.

The year I was born, 1941, Polaris was a whole degree from the celestial north pole.

If you’ve ever wondered why right ascension is in hours instead of degrees it’s because the Earth rotates within the celestial sphere, so it’s easier to keep track of the east-west position in the sky by using a clock that set to gain 3 minutes and 56 seconds a day.  Such a clock keeps sidereal (star) time rather than solar (sun) time.  One hour equals 15 angular degrees or 4 minutes a degree.


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