The Pole Star (or Polar Star) isn't a fixed star - it changes over time

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

A pole star or polar star is a star, preferably bright, nearly aligned with the axis of a rotating astronomical body.

Currently, Earth's pole stars are Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris), a magnitude-2 star aligned approximately with its northern axis, and a pre-eminent star in celestial navigation, and—on its southern axis—Polaris Australis (Sigma Octantis), a much dimmer star.

From around 1700 BC until just after 300 AD, Kochab (Beta Ursae Minoris) and Pherkad (Gamma Ursae Minoris) were twin northern pole stars, though neither was as close to the pole as Polaris is now.


In classical antiquity, Beta Ursae Minoris (Kochab) was closer to the celestial north pole than Alpha Ursae Minoris. While there was no naked-eye star close to the pole, the midpoint between Alpha and Beta Ursae Minoris was reasonably close to the pole, and it appears that the entire constellation of Ursa Minor, in antiquity known as Cynosura (Greek Κυνόσουρα "dog's tail") was used as indicating the northern direction for the purposes of navigation by the Phoenicians. The ancient name of Ursa Minor, anglicized as a cynosure, has since itself become a term for "guiding principle" after the constellation's use in navigation.

Alpha Ursae Minoris (Polaris) was described as ἀειφανής (transliterated as aiphanes) meaning "always above the horizon", "ever-shining"[3] by Stobaeus in the 5th century, when it was still removed from the celestial pole by about 8°. It was known as scip-steorra ("ship-star") in 10th-century Anglo-Saxon England, reflecting its use in navigation. In the Vishnu Purana, it is personified under the name Dhruva ("immovable, fixed").

The name stella polaris was coined in the Renaissance, even though at that time it was well recognized that it was several degrees away from the celestial pole; Gemma Frisius in the year 1547 determined this distance as 3°8'.[4] An explicit identification of Mary as stella maris with the North Star (Polaris) becomes evident in the title Cynosura seu Mariana Stella Polaris (i.e. "Cynosure, or the Marian Polar Star"), a collection of Marian poetry published by Nicolaus Lucensis (Niccolo Barsotti de Lucca) in 1655.

Precession of the equinoxes

In October 2012, Polaris had the declination +89°19′8″ (at epoch J2000 it was +89°15′51.2″). Therefore, it always appears due north in the sky to a precision better than one degree, and the angle it makes with respect to the true horizon (after correcting for refraction and other factors) is equal to the latitude of the observer to better than one degree. The celestial pole will be nearest Polaris in 2100 and will thereafter become more distant.

Due to the precession of the equinoxes (as well as the stars' proper motions), the role of the North Star has passed (and will pass) from one star to another in the remote past (and in the remote future). In 3000 BC, the faint star Thuban in the constellation Draco was the North Star, aligning within 0.1° distance from the celestial pole, the closest of any of the visible pole stars. However, at magnitude 3.67 (fourth magnitude) it is only one-fifth as bright as Polaris, and today it is invisible in light-polluted urban skies.

During the 1st millennium BC, Beta Ursae Minoris ("Kochab") was the bright star closest to the celestial pole, but it was never close enough to be taken as marking the pole, and the Greek navigator Pytheas in ca. 320 BC described the celestial pole as devoid of stars. In the Roman era, the celestial pole was about equally distant between Polaris and Kochab.

The precession of the equinoxes takes about 25,770 years to complete a cycle. Polaris' mean position (taking account of precession and proper motion) will reach a maximum declination of +89°32'23", which translates to 1657" (or 0.4603°) from the celestial north pole, in February 2102. Its maximum apparent declination (taking account of nutation and aberration) will be +89°32'50.62", which is 1629" (or 0.4526°) from the celestial north pole, on 24 March 2100.

Precession will next point the north celestial pole at stars in the northern constellation Cepheus. The pole will drift to space equidistant between Polaris and Gamma Cephei ("Errai") by 3000 AD, with Errai reaching its closest alignment with the northern celestial pole around 4200 AD. Iota Cephei and Beta Cephei will stand on either side of the northern celestial pole sometime around 5200 AD, before moving to closer alignment with the brighter star Alpha Cephei ("Alderamin") around 7500 AD.

Precession will then point the north celestial pole at stars in the northern constellation Cygnus. Like Beta Ursae Minoris during the 1st millennium BC, the bright star closest to the celestial pole in the 10th millennium AD, first-magnitude Deneb, will be a distant 7° from the pole, never close enough to be taken as marking the pole, while third-magnitude Delta Cygni will be a more helpful pole star, at a distance of 3° from celestial north, around 11,500 AD. Precession will then point the north celestial pole nearer the constellation Lyra, where the second brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere, Vega, will be a pole star around 13,700 AD, though at a distance of 5° from celestial north.

Precession will eventually point the north celestial pole nearer the stars in the constellation Hercules, pointing towards Tau Herculis around 18,400 AD. The celestial pole will then return to the stars in constellation Draco (Thuban, mentioned above) before returning to the current constellation, Ursa Minor. When Polaris becomes the North Star again around 27,800 AD, due to its proper motion it then will be farther away from the pole than it is now, while in 23,600 BC it was closer to the pole.

Over the course of Earth's 26,000-year axial precession cycle, a series of bright naked-eye stars (an apparent magnitude up to +6; a full moon is −12.9) in the northern hemisphere will hold the transitory title of North Star.[10] While other stars might line up with the north celestial pole during the 26,000-year cycle, they do not necessarily meet the naked eye limit needed to serve as a useful indicator of the north to an Earth-based observer, resulting in periods of time during the cycle when there is no clearly defined North Star. There will also be periods during the cycle when bright stars give only an approximate guide to "north", as they may be greater than 5° of angular diameter removed from direct alignment with the north celestial pole.

The 26,000-year cycle of North Stars, starting with the current star, with stars that will be "near-north" indicators when no North Star exists during the cycle, including each star's average brightness and closest alignment to the north celestial pole during the cycle.


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