Star Trail Photo Hints at Hidden Polestars

A week ago I made a 45-minute time exposure of the southern sky featuring the planet Mars. As the Earth rotated on its axis, the stars trailed across the sky. But take a closer look at the photo and you’ll see something interesting going on.

The trails across the diagonal (upper right to lower left) are straight, those in the top third arc upward or north while those in the bottom third curve downward or south.

I’ve drawn part of the imaginary great circle in the sky called the celestial equator. Residents of cities on or near the Earth’s equator see the celestial equator pass directly overhead. From mid-northern latitudes, it’s about halfway up in the southern sky. From mid-southern latitudes, it’s halfway up in the northern sky. Credit: Bob King

I suspect you know what’s happening here. Mars happens to lie near the celestial equator, an extension of Earth’s equator into the sky. The celestial equator traces a great circle around the celestial sphere much as the equator completely encircles the Earth.

On Earth, cities north of the equator are located in the northern hemisphere, south of the equator in the southern hemisphere. The same is true of the stars. Depending on their location with respect to the celestial equator they belong either to the northern or southern halves of the sky.

Earth’s axis points north to Polaris, the northern hemisphere’s North Star, and south to dim Sigma Octantis. Illustration: Bob King

Next, let’s take a look at Earth’s axis and where each end points. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you know that the axis points north to the North Star or Polaris. As the Earth spins, Polaris appears fixed in the north while all the stars in the northern half of the sky describe a circle around it every 24 hours (one Earth spin). The closer a star is to Polaris, the tighter the circle it describes.

Time exposure centered on Polaris, the North Star. Notice that the closer stars are to Polaris, the smaller the circles they describe. Stars at the edge of the frame make much larger circles. Credit: Bob King

Likewise, from the southern hemisphere, all the southern stars circle about the south pole star, an obscure star named Sigma in the constellation of Octans, a type of navigational instrument. Again, as with Polaris, the closer a star lies to Sigma Octantis, the smaller its circle.

Stars trail around the dim southern pole star Sigma Octantis as seen from the southern hemisphere. The two smudges are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, companion galaxies of the Milky Way. Credit: Ted Dobosz

But what about stars on or near the celestial equator? These gems are the maximum distance of 90 degrees from either pole star just as Earth’s equator is 90 degrees from the north and south poles. They “tread the line” between both hemispheres and make circles so wide they appear not as arcs – as the other stars do in the photo – but as straight lines. And that’s why stars appear to be heading in three separate directions in the photograph.

A view of the entire sky as seen from Quito, Ecuador on the equator this evening. The celestial equator crosses directly overhead while each pole star lies 90 degrees away on opposite horizons. Stellarium

In so many ways, we see aspects of our own planet in the stars above.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

View Comments

  • Hi Bob,

    Nice article, it is something I have been teaching for years. Most students only image Polaris and circumpolar stars, they do not appreciate the other aspects that your feature draws out. What is also true is that the star trails in the night sky are a reflection of the shadows produced from a Shadow Stick during the daytime. I am based at 50 degrees North in the UK.

    Brian Sheen - Roseland Observatory

  • I find the title of the article confusing. What has the title to do with the article text? What are the "polestars" (plural), why are they "hidden", and which of those photo does "hint" at them (and how)? As is, this is probably he worst title I have seen here so far…

  • Tony the answer to your questions are;- The polestars are Polaris and sigma octans north and south pole respectively. The pole stars themselves are not in the first two images so the poles are "hidden".

    The problem with any short feature (in the original email) is to give it a title that makes the reader click on it to read the rest of the article on the webpage. It worked for me ....!

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