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What if it's night and you want to find north? How do you locate the North Star in the night sky?

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You need to know if you are in Northern Hemisphere or in Southern Hemisphere or nearby the Equator.

If you are in Northern Hemisphere:

First locate the Polaris. Its the last star in The Ursa Minor. I've had trouble in locating it sometimes. Many people do. So, if you are in such a situation, try locating The Ursa Major. The Ursa Major is located just to the north of The Celestial Pole.
Depending upon the time of the year constellation of stars may be tipped in different directions as it rotates around the Polaris, so you could use the two stars that form the outer edge of the Ursa Major. Join the two starts from the Ursa Major to the one last star in Ursa Minor. The star that you have pointed to is Polaris. Draw an imaginary straight line from Polaris to the ground, thats the North! More popularly, the Ursa Minor is also known as The Little Dipper and the Ursa Major is known as The Big Dipper.

enter image description here


If you are in Southern Hemisphere:

In southern hemisphere, The North Star, Polaris is not visible, so You'll need to identify the Southern Cross, also known as Crux. The Southern Cross is constellation that has 5 starts, the 4 of them being brighter than the other and angled together and quite far away from the 5th star, Acrux aka Alpha Crusis. Draw an imaginary line towards the ground from the axis that intersects Acrux. That is the south, so the north will be exactly opposite to it and behind you.

enter image description here

Now as suggested in the Sydney Observatory link, depending upon how deeper south you are, you will find the Crux tipping on nearly every hour. Then how do you locate the north direction? If you can observe that the Crux rotates around/about an imaginary point. The point shall help you in finding South and North direction.

enter image description here


If you are at Equator:

If you are around Equator, I bet you can easily spot The Orion Constellation. Its one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky. It is visible from both hemispheres depending on the time of the year. It is a permanent feature on the equator. Spot the 3 starts forming a line, very prominent trio of starts, often called as The Orion's Belt. The Orion's Belt rises from East to West. So now you know your North.

enter image description here


Using Cassiopeia Constellation:

You can locate Cassiopeia exactly opposite to the Ursa Major. In this spider-legged 'M' shaped constellation, draw a line between 3rd and 4th star (Counting from Left to Right, or to be precise considering with 3 stars at the bottom and the remaining 2 at the top like an M), then draw a perpendicular to that line, the perpendicular points to Polaris. That is your North!

enter image description here

  • Does the Orion/Equatorial method give a less precise direction for North than finding Polaris? It seems to indicate a general direction, which is often good enough, rather than the exact direction. – orangejewelweed Sep 8 '14 at 14:31
  • @orangejewelweed: If I am on Equator, the Orion's Belt is my best bet for finding the North. But depending upon where you are, Orion's Constellation may or may not be visible. On Equator its visible all the time, but in India, I usually start seeing the Orion from around 7.30 pm, when I wake up at 2.00 am, its gone. – WedaPashi Sep 8 '14 at 14:37
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    Nice answer. From my latitude in Los Angeles, Cassiopeia is often visible when the big dipper is not. Polaris is not especially bright, so in big, light-polluted cities like mine, one can often use Cassiopeia to find north even if Polaris is too dim to see. – Ben Crowell Sep 8 '14 at 22:16
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    @orangejewelweed: No eyeball technique using the stars is going to give you the kind of high-precision heading you could get from a properly adjusted magnetic compass. For example, if you have a map that shows you want to go 134 degrees east of north, locating Polaris by eye is only going to give you a rough idea of what direction that is. There are more sophisticated celestial navigation techniques, but they require instruments and possibly tables. – Ben Crowell Sep 8 '14 at 22:23
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    I don't find the explanation about the Southern Cross very clear. The standard rule -as I know it- is: extend the "long" axis of the cross, in the "foot" direction, four and a half times. csiro.au/helix/sciencemail/activities/images/CruxLength.jpg Further, the rule "go towards the ground" is not reliable, sometimes the cross can point upwards sydneyobservatory.com.au/2010/… – leonbloy Sep 9 '14 at 10:31
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Adding this mainly because it's a different kind of approach. The other ones are usually more practical, but this is an alternative that does not require remembering any constellations.

If you have a rough idea and a camera, you can take a long exposure (30s minimum, more is better) and check which star in photo is the only one that does not move / stays a single dot in the picture.

This picture is taken with 45 minutes exposure, but you will be able to make it out with much shorter times:

enter image description here

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    @HelmHammerhand: Haven't heard of this technique ever. I doubt though, if you have a such a good camera, then why wouldn't you have a Compass. But +1. Nice way! – WedaPashi Sep 9 '14 at 7:07
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The simplest way (assuming you are in the Northern hemisphere) is to first find the Great Bear / Ursa Major / the Big Dipper / The Plough, and use the two end stars as a sight line. The star in Ursa Minor that they point to is Polaris, which is currently our Pole Star. This does change, but not noticeably in our lifetimes.

enter image description here

(from http://www.themightyeagle.co.uk/ )

As an interesting aside, Astronomy.SE has a nice question on the 'South Pole Star' and a lovely diagram showing precession.

  • I knew it had something to do with the plough. I thought it was the handle that pointed that direction – user2766 Sep 8 '14 at 13:33
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    @RoryAlsop It's approx five times (although I learned as a child it's seven times) the distance between those two stars (the rear axle) to the Pole Star. – Wills Sep 9 '14 at 5:22

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