Circumpolar star

Northern circumpolar stars appearing to revolve around the north celestial pole. Note that Polaris, the bright star near the center, remains almost stationary in the sky. The north pole star is constantly above the horizon throughout the year, viewed from the Northern Hemisphere. (The graphic shows how the apparent positions of the stars move over a 24-hour period, but in practice, they are invisible in daylight, in which sunlight outshines them.)
Circumpolar star trails in a long-exposure photo of several hours. Note that the stars near the celestial pole leave shorter trails with the long exposure.

A circumpolar star is a star, as viewed from a given latitude on Earth, that never sets below the horizon due to its apparent proximity to one of the celestial poles. Circumpolar stars are therefore visible from said location toward the nearest pole for the entire night on every night of the year (and would be continuously visible throughout the day too, were they not overwhelmed by the Sun's glare).

All circumpolar stars lie within a relative circumpolar circle, whose radius equals the observer's latitude. This was in fact the original meaning of "Arctic Circle", before the current geographical meaning, meaning "Circle of the Bears" (Ursa Major, the Great Bear; and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear), from Greek αρκτικός (arktikos), "near the Bear", from the word άρκτος (arktos) bear.


As Earth rotates daily on its axis, the stars appear to move in circular paths around one of the celestial poles (the north celestial pole for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, or the south celestial pole for observers in the Southern Hemisphere). Stars far from a celestial pole appear to rotate in large circles; stars located very close to a celestial pole rotate in small circles and hence hardly seem to engage in any diurnal motion at all. Depending on the observer's latitude on Earth, some stars – the circumpolar ones – are close enough to the celestial pole to remain continuously above the horizon, while other stars dip below the horizon for some portion of their daily circular path (and others remain permanently below the horizon).

The circumpolar stars appear to lie within a circle that is centered at the celestial pole and tangential to the horizon. At the Earth's North Pole, the north celestial pole is directly overhead, and all stars that are visible at all (that is, all stars in the Northern Celestial Hemisphere) are circumpolar. As one travels south, the north celestial pole moves towards the northern horizon. More and more stars that are at a distance from it begin to disappear below the horizon for some portion of their daily "orbit", and the circle containing the remaining circumpolar stars becomes increasingly small. At the Equator, this circle vanishes to a single point – the celestial pole itself – which lies on the horizon, and there are thus effectively no circumpolar stars at all.

As one travels south of the Equator, the opposite happens. The south celestial pole appears increasingly high in the sky, and all the stars lying within an increasingly large circle centered on that pole become circumpolar about it. This continues until one reaches the Earth's South Pole where, once again, all visible stars are circumpolar.

The north celestial pole is located very close to the pole star (Polaris or North Star), so from the Northern Hemisphere, all circumpolar stars appear to move around Polaris. Polaris itself remains almost stationary, always at the north (i.e. azimuth of 0°), and always at the same altitude (angle from the horizon), equal to the observer's latitude. These are then classified into quadrants.

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