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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

There's More to the North Star Than Meets the Eye

via PRNewswire

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 /PRNewswire/ -- By stretching the capabilities of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to the limit, astronomers photographed Polaris,the close companion of the North Star, for the first time.

"Hubble's exceptional pointing capabilities combined with the wonderful performance of its instruments allow scientists to see the universe in finer detail than ever before," said Michael Moore , NASA's Hubble program executive."It is that clear vision that makes these types of discoveries possible," he added.

The North Star is thought to be a steady, solitary point of light that guided sailors for ages, but there is more to this star than meets the eye. The North Star is actually a triple star system. While one companion is easily viewed with small telescopes, the other hugs Polaris so tightly that it has never been seen until now.

"The star we observed is so close to Polaris that we needed every available bit of Hubble's resolution to see it," said astronomer Nancy Evans of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. The companion proved to be less than two-tenths of an arc second from Polaris. That is an incredibly tiny angle equivalent to the apparent diameter of a quarter located 19 miles away. At the system's distance of 430 light-years from Earth, that translates into a separation of about 2 billion miles.

"The brightness difference between the two stars made it even more difficult to resolve them," said astronomer Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore . Polaris is a super-giant more than two thousand times brighter than the sun, while its companion is a main-sequence star. "With Hubble, we've pulled the North Star's companion out of the shadows and into the spotlight," he said.

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