The Real Reason The North Star Is So Important

As children, we heard stories about the North Star, among other myths about space – how it guided the Three Wise Men to Baby Jesus, or how it could always point you in the right direction. These weren't just stories, the North Star — also known as Polaris — is actually a very important star for humanity.

We call it the North Star because it's located above the Earth's northern axis, according to Space, where it remains. Imagine the Earth spinning on its axis — all the stars around will start to blur but the North Star sits exactly dead center and will not move. It's part of the Ursa Minor, or the Little Bear constellation. If you're more familiar with the cluster of stars called the Little Dipper, you'd know the North Star is at the end of the Dipper's handle.

Contrary to popular belief, the North Star is not the brightest star in the universe. It ranks among the top 50 brightest stars, Space says, and while it is true that it's brighter than the sun, it's too far away from Earth to really shine. That doesn't mean it isn't impressive though — Polaris is huge. Sky and Telescope notes that it's a yellow supergiant preparing to become a red supergiant. The sun, for comparison, is a yellow dwarf.

It can put compasses to shame

Since Polaris stays in the same place, it's been used as a fixed point for wayfinding for centuries. The American Practical Navigator, published in 1802, lists Polaris as a navigational star and advised that locating it makes it easier to figure out the surrounding stars.

Sailors, Newsday reports, can use Polaris to figure out where they are. Sailors and pilots use a tool called a sextant to find their location in relation to Polaris, so if they're about 41 degrees from Polaris, they could be in New York City which is exactly 41 degrees north of the equator. Had Amelia Earhart studied celestial navigation, she may never have gotten lost in the first place.

Pilots are still encouraged to still learn how to navigate using the stars, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says. While modern technology makes navigation easier, knowing how to navigate using the stars is a good emergency skill to have.

Though it has remained constant, the North Star might not stay at true north forever. The Earth's axis occasionally wobbles. Scientists estimate that in 13,000 years, per The Sun, the axis will wobble enough that north will point directly to another star, Vega, and Polaris will no longer hold the title of North Star.

While Polaris may not be our forever North, in a universe of unknowns, the idea of a star that remains constant In our sky is both useful and reassuring.