Most of us will see the sun cross the sky throughout nearly every day. We know that the stars will also cross at night, but not many of us note their passage through the dark from dusk to dawn. How many nights has the old oak watched as the stars made their slow traverse across the sky? It has seen all the patterns made as the sun, moon, planets and stars rise and set.
Do the stars rise in the east and set in the west as the sun and moon do? The short answer is not exactly, almost oddly enough. As Earth revolves, most of the stars rise and set, but the stars to the north and south arc around the northern and southern axes of our rotation. If we looked out into space perpendicularly to our axis of rotation, the stars we would see would rise in the east and set in the west. The further north or south one looks, the tighter is the arc of the stars.
Where we are in the northern hemisphere, we have a view of the northern polar axis, which conveniently sits on a bright star we’ve named Polaris, the North Star. The stars nearest Polaris will travel in a tight circle around it as Earth rotates, never rising or setting at a horizon. The farther out from Polaris the stars are, the wider their circles. Far enough from Polaris the stars’ larger paths take them from one horizon to the other; these stars rise and set. If we were on the equator, the stars due east would rise vertically, and set due west. From our latitude as one’s gaze moves south the apparent motion of the stars follows an arc above the southern horizon; the center of that arc is the southern axis, which we can’t see because it is above the south pole beyond the horizon.
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