You’re lost in the woods. The coyotes are hungry. You don’t have a map. Or a compass. Or a flashlight. Or a cellphone. You’re trapped inside an arboreal prison. How are you going to breakout and find your way back to camp? Shhh…did hear that? The coyotes are howling. Quick. Let’s get out of here.
…here’s the plan.
- Use the Big Dipper
All you need to do is locate the Big Dipper. Easy, right? Ursa Major is a bright circumpolar constellation in the northern hemisphere. Two stars in the dipper asterism point to Polaris: Merak and Dubhe. Both stars are located in the center of the magical red circles. Don’t worry about the specifics. Because it doesn’t really matter. As long as you can locate the two bright stars toward the outside portion of the dipper, then everything else will be easy-peasy.
- Locate Merak and Dubhe
Fantastic! You managed to locate the correct stars within the Big Dipper. You’ll find your way back to camp soon. But don’t be lazy. Coyotes love the taste of laziness.
- Use your vast brain power! Imagine a straight line connecting Merak and Dubhe to Polaris
This part is the most difficult, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the night sky. Most people think the North Star is the brightest star in the night sky. Those people are wrong. The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius, but let’s not digress. Polaris is a somewhat dim star, and there are plenty of visible stars within that same apparent magnitude range. Polaris pretty much appears to be as bright as the other stars which happen to be within the same vicinity. Convenient. Not.
The Big Dipper is more prominent than the Little Dipper, that’s why it’s advised to locate Merak and Dubhe before attempting to locate Polaris. You can’t fuck this up or bad things will happen, understand? If you don’t locate the correct star, then you’ll just end up walking around in circles, and will be too exhausted to battle a wild coyote gang.
Merak and Dubhe point directly to Polaris. Use your vast brain power and imagine a straight line connecting all three stars. This process becomes easier once you’re able to locate all the stars within the Little Dipper.
Locating Polaris takes practice. Don’t expect the Big Dipper to be in the exact position each night. Although Ursa Major is circumpolar—the entire constellation moves relative to Polaris. As the seasons change, the Big Dipper can appear to be a menacing cosmic sickle waiting to harvest your soul. And other times…well…it looks like a dipper.
The stars in the Big Dipper image are somewhat dim, but it’s an accurate depiction of what the night sky looks like with minor light pollution. Sodium vapor street lamps diminishes the apparent magnitude of starlight, which means it will be more difficult to locate Polaris if the sky is not entirely dark. If you’re able to see the Big Dipper asterism, you should be able to see Polaris. If the Big Dipper asterism is not visible, then you will most likely not be able to see Polaris.
Need some practice? Look at the image above this paragraph and try to locate the Big Dipper. There are no magical circles. Sorry. The position of the Big Dipper asterism is somewhat unusual, but you’ll find it, right? Your life depends on it. Don’t be scared. Coyotes love the taste of fear.
The Big Dipper’s handle spans about 10°, and a fist held at arm’s length also equals about 10°. Drag your fist in a straight line toward where you think Polaris is located. This technique may prevent your eyes from roaming around the sky. The Little Dipper looks similar to the Big Dipper…it’s…just…ummm…little. Polaris is the only star that aligns with Merak and Dubhe (in a straight line).
Remember: Polaris is a fixed position in the night sky. If the star you located drifted in the sky, then it wasn’t Polaris. Check the stars every 15-25 minutes and you’ll notice a substantial change in their position due to Earth’s rotation. If the star you located remained in the same spot, then it was Polaris.
** Quick Overview **
- Use the Big Dipper
- Find Uncluttered Horizon
- Locate Merak & Dubhe
- Draw a mental line to Polaris
- Don’t get lost
**Things to Keep in Mind**
- The North Star is not the brightest star in the night sky
- Light pollution causes fewer stars to be visible
- Dubhe and Merak point to Polaris
- Ursa Major’s position changes, but the constellation won’t set below the horizon
** Further Information **
You saved the day! Your celestial wayfaring kept us on a straight path due north, and we didn’t become a coyote’s appetizer. Navigating the night sky is not easy. There’s a trillion ways to mess it all up—you managed to find the one way which didn’t mess things up. You’ll never be lost again.
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