How do I polar align my telescope?
I just got a telescope but don't understand how the polar alignment procedure works. How do I do this and will it change if I'm in the southern hemisphere?
There are actually a lot of websites that explain polar alignment, so I'll refer you to those since they include helpful graphics that I can't use here. The basic idea is that you want to align the mount of your telescope with the north or south celestial pole so that your telescope will track stars correctly. (The north celestial pole is the point on the sky directly over the north rotational pole of the Earth. Since the pole is right on Earth's axis of rotation, it doesn't move in the sky like the rest of the stars do.) Since Polaris (the North Star) is at the north celestial pole, this procedure is easier if you're in the northern hemisphere. Two websites explaining polar alignment, mostly for the northern hemisphere, are the Celestron site , and a personal web site with lots of pictures.
For the southern hemisphere, you can look at this site, which has illustrations about how to locate the south celestial pole and polar align in the southern hemisphere.
Also keep in mind that this only has to be as accurate as you want it to be. If you want to take long exposure photographs, the alignment has to be very good or you will see streaks. However, if you don't plan to look at any object for a long period of time, it doesn't matter if the alignment's exactly right. Also, as with most things, the process will become a lot faster and easier as you practice.
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