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February 19, 2013

The North Star, Polaris, barely cracks the list of the 50 brightest stars in the night sky. Yet it’s been one of the most important stars in the sky because of its position — for several centuries, it’s marked due north, making it a good navigational beacon. And it’s in view all night every night, at exactly the same spot in the sky.

Many northern hemisphere cultures have noted Polaris’s stationary ways. Some American Indian tribes, for example, called it “the star that never moves.”

One story about the star comes from the Iroquois. It was reported in a Smithsonian study in the 19th century.

The story says that a hunting party roamed so far from home that it became lost. While holding a council to decide what to do, a little being, like a child, appeared and said she would guide them. After days of traveling through the unfamiliar lands, the hunting party finally met the chief of the little people. He pointed to the North Star and told the hunters to follow its light, which would guide them back to their own village. It did — and it continued to guide the Iroquois on their nighttime journeys from then on.

Despite its role as a guide, Polaris can be tough to find. One trick is to line up the stars that form the outer edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper, which is in the northeast this evening. Follow the line of those stars up and away from the bowl to the next moderately bright star — the North Star, Polaris.

More about Polaris tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012

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