True north

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True north (also called geodetic north or geographic north) is the direction along Earth's surface towards the geographic North Pole or True North Pole.

Geodetic north differs from magnetic north (the direction a compass points toward the Magnetic North Pole), and from grid north (the direction northwards along the grid lines of a map projection). Geodetic true north also differs very slightly from astronomical true north (typically by a few arcseconds) because the local gravity may not point at the exact rotational axis of Earth.

The direction of astronomical true north is marked in the skies by the north celestial pole. This is within about 1° of the position of Polaris, so that the star would appear to trace a tiny circle in the sky each sidereal day. Due to the axial precession of Earth, true north rotates in an arc with respect to the stars that takes approximately 25,000 years to complete. Around 2101–2103, Polaris will make its closest approach to the celestial north pole (extrapolated from recent Earth precession). [1] [2] [3] The visible star nearest the north celestial pole 5,000 years ago was Thuban. [4]

On maps published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the United States Armed Forces, true north is marked with a line terminating in a five-pointed star. [5] The east and west edges of the USGS topographic quadrangle maps of the United States are meridians of longitude, thus indicating true north (so they are not exactly parallel). Maps issued by the United Kingdom Ordnance Survey contain a diagram showing the difference between true north, grid north, and magnetic north at a point on the sheet; the edges of the map are likely to follow grid directions rather than true, and the map will thus be truly rectangular/square.

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Polaris Brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor

Polaris ( ), designated α Ursae Minoris, commonly the North Star or Pole Star, is the brightest star of the constellation Ursa Minor. It is very close to the north celestial pole, making it the current northern pole star. The revised Hipparcos parallax gives a distance to Polaris of about 433 light-years, while calculations by some other methods derive distances up to 35% closer.

Right ascension Astronomical equivalent of longitude

Right ascension is the angular distance of a particular point measured eastward along the celestial equator from the Sun at the March equinox to the point in question above the earth. When paired with declination, these astronomical coordinates specify the location of a point on the celestial sphere in the equatorial coordinate system.

Azimuth The angle between a reference plane and a point

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Celestial pole Two imaginary points in the sky where the Earths axis of rotation, indefinitely extended, intersects the imaginary rotating sphere of stars called the celestial sphere

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Equatorial coordinate system celestial coordinate system used to specify the positions of celestial objects

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Ecliptic coordinate system

The ecliptic coordinate system is a celestial coordinate system commonly used for representing the apparent positions, orbits, and pole orientations of Solar System objects. Because most planets and many small Solar System bodies have orbits with only slight inclinations to the ecliptic, using it as the fundamental plane is convenient. The system's origin can be the center of either the Sun or Earth, its primary direction is towards the vernal (March) equinox, and it has a right-hand convention. It may be implemented in spherical or rectangular coordinates.

Hour angle

In astronomy and celestial navigation, the hour angle is one of the coordinates used in the equatorial coordinate system to give the direction of a point on the celestial sphere. The hour angle of a point is the angle between two planes: one containing Earth's axis and the zenith, and the other containing Earth's axis and the given point.

North One of the four cardinal directions

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Axial precession Gravity-induced, slow, and continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical bodys rotational axis

In astronomy, axial precession is a gravity-induced, slow, and continuous change in the orientation of an astronomical body's rotational axis. In particular, it can refer to the gradual shift in the orientation of Earth's axis of rotation in a cycle of approximately 26,000 years. This is similar to the precession of a spinning top, with the axis tracing out a pair of cones joined at their apices. The term "precession" typically refers only to this largest part of the motion; other changes in the alignment of Earth's axis—nutation and polar motion—are much smaller in magnitude.

Cardinal direction Directions of north, east, south and west

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Draco (constellation) Constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere

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Magnetic declination

Magnetic declination, or magnetic variation, is the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north and true north. This angle varies depending on position on the Earth's surface and changes over time.

Beta Ursae Minoris Star in the constellation Ursa Minor

Beta Ursae Minoris, formally named Kochab, is the brightest star in the bowl of the Little Dipper asterism, and only slightly fainter than Polaris, the northern pole star and brightest star in Ursa Minor. Kochab is 16 degrees from Polaris and has an apparent visual magnitude of 2.08. The distance to this star from the Sun can be deduced from the parallax measurements made during the Hipparcos mission, yielding a value of 130.9 light-years.

Pole star Visible star that is nearly aligned with Earths axis of rotation

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

Meridian (geography) Line between the poles with the same longitude

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Alpha Cephei Star in the constellation of Cepheus

Alpha Cephei, officially named Alderamin, is a second magnitude star in the constellation of Cepheus near the northern pole. The star is relatively close to Earth at 49 light years (ly).

Spherical astronomy

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Circumpolar constellation

In astronomy, a circumpolar constellation is a constellation that never sets below the horizon, as viewed from a location on Earth. Due to Earth's rotation and axial tilt with respect to the Sun, the stars and constellations can be divided into two categories. Those stars and constellations that never rise or set are called circumpolar. The rest are divided into seasonal stars and constellations.


  1. Meeus 1997, p. 305.
  2. McClure 2013.
  3. Smiley & Khan 1959, p. 250.
  4. Ridpath 2004, p. 5: "Around 4800 years ago Thuban (α Draconis) lay a mere 0°.1 from the pole. Deneb (α Cygni) will be the brightest star near the pole in about 8000 years' time, at a distance of 7°.5."
  5. "What do the different north arrows on a USGS topographic map mean?". United States Geological Survey.