By: Tariq Malik
Published: 11/30/2012 02:51 PM EST on SPACE.com

The famed North Star has been a beacon in the night sky throughout human history, but a new study reveals the star is actually closer to our solar system than previously thought.

Scientists studying the North Star Polaris found that it is about 323 light-years from the sun and Earth, substantially closer than a previous estimate of 434 light-years by a European satellite in the late 1990s. The new distance measurement may help astronomers in the pursuit of several cosmic mysteries, such as the hunt for elusive dark energy, researchers said.

Polaris is what astronomers call a Cepheid variable star, a pulsating star used by scientists to measure distances in space. Astronomers can measure the distance to a Cepheid variable by studying how it changes in brightness over time.

Since Polaris is the nearest Cepheid variable star to our solar system, an accurate distance to the star could serve as a benchmark for measurements of other Cepheids used to determine the scale of the universe.

In the 1990s, the European Space Agency's star-mapping Hipparcos satellite determined the 434 light-year distance to Polaris, while other studies suggested the star could be closer to the sun. One light-year is the distance light travels in a single year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).

The new study by astronomers in Canada, Ukraine and Belgium confirmed the closer distance using new high-resolution observations of the star's light spectrum. [Top 10 Star Mysteries]

"Polaris presents certain anomalies that have so far defied a straightforward interpretation," said study leader David Turner of Canada's Saint Mary's University in Halifax in a statement. "Our high-resolution spectroscopic observations of Polaris may signal the beginning of a new era in understanding the star."

The research is detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Polaris gained its reputation as the North Star due to its location in the night sky, which is aligned with the direction of Earth's axis.

Unlike other stars, which appear to rise and set over the course of a night as the Earth rotates, Polaris remains in a fixed position in the northern sky, making it a valuable navigation beacon. In long-exposure photos, stars in the sky appear to circle Polaris.

Polaris is actually one of at least three stars in a single system. The star is about 4,000 times as bright as the sun.

While Polaris is the North Star today, it won't always remain so. The Earth's axis actually wobbles over centuries in a pattern that astronomers call precession. In the year 14,000, this precession will aim the Earth's axis closer to the bright star Vega than Polaris.

You can follow SPACE.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalikFollow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Entire Sun Imaged

    In February, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stereo/main/index.html" target="_hplink">NASA's STEREO probes</a>, two observatories that were launched in 2006 to survey the sun, reached opposite ends of the sun and thus, were able to give scientists (and the rest of us!) a never-before-seen view of the far side of the star at the center of our solar system. The composite image above was captured on June 1, 2011, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/stereo/news/farside-060111.html" target="_hplink">and according to NASA</a>, "is the first complete image of the solar far side, the half of the sun invisible from Earth." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/07/nasa-stereo-sun-images-video_n_819510.html" target="_hplink">Click here for more</a> on the STEREO probes.

  • Messenger Reaches Mercury

    While it's not a "discovery," <em>per se</em>, it's a milestone that will no doubt lead to many new findings about the smallest and innermost planet in our solar system. In March, after a 6 1/2-year, 4.9 billion mile journey, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/18/nasa-messenger-mercury_n_837503.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Messenger spacecraft reached Mercury's orbit</a>. Messenger, the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, <a href="http://messenger.jhuapl.edu/mer_orbit.html" target="_hplink">orbits the planet</a> every 12 hours. In November, <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/messenger/media/MissionExtends.html" target="_hplink">NASA announced that the spacecraft's mission</a>, which was supposed to end on March 17, 2012, would be extended for an additional year.

  • Pluto's Tiny Moon

    In July, NASA said that its Hubble Space Telescope <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/20/new-pluto-moon-hubble-space-telescope_n_904578.html" target="_hplink">discovered an eight to 21-mile-wide moon</a> circling the dwarf planet.

  • Black Hole Eats A Star

    In March, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/07/nasa-cosmic-blast_n_846333.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Swift satellite saw an unusually long explosion of gamma-rays</a>. After studying the X-rays, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/25/black-hole-eats-star-video_n_937150.html" target="_hplink">scientists found that they came from</a> a black hole that had become reenergized when it devoured a star. <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/aug/HQ_11-271_Swift_Black_Hole.html" target="_hplink">From NASA</a>: <blockquote>Astronomers soon realized the source, known as Swift J1644+57, was the result of a truly extraordinary event -- the awakening of a distant galaxy's dormant black hole as it shredded and consumed a star. The galaxy is so far away, it took the light from the event approximately 3.9 billion years to reach Earth. </blockquote>

  • Huge Mountain Discovered On Asteroid

    <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/dawn/main/index.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Dawn</a>, an ion-propelled spacecraft that traveled 1.7 billion miles before reaching the asteroid Vesta in July, sent back images in October revealing that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/05/vesta-mountain-dawn-nasa_n_996282.html" target="_hplink">Vesta is home to a mountain larger than any mountain</a> on Earth. In December, NASA released new images that Dawn took when it was orbiting only 130 miles above the asteroid, the closest it will get to Vesta. Dawn will continue to image Vesta until next summer, when it will make its way to Ceres, a bigger asteroid.

  • 'Star Wars'-Like Planet

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/kepler-16b-planet-two-suns_n_964799.html" target="_hplink">NASA's Kepler spacecraft found a planet</a> that orbits two suns, driving fans of the "Star Wars" franchise <a href="http://blog.moviefone.com/2011/09/16/astronomers-discover-real-life-tatooine-star-wars/" target="_hplink">to call it a real-life Tatooine</a>. Astronomers announced Kepler-16b, which is the first circumbinary planet -- meaning it orbits two stars -- in September. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/kepler-16b-planet-two-suns_n_964799.html" target="_hplink">Click here for more</a> on Kepler-16b.

  • 'Habitable Zone' Planet Found

    Scientists in early December <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/kepler-22b-new-planet-discovered-habitable-zone_n_1129591.html" target="_hplink">announced the discovery of Kepler-22b</a>, a planet with a temperature of around 72 degrees that's in the so-called <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitable_zone" target="_hplink">"Goldilocks," or habitable zone</a>. While the temperature of the 600-light-year away planet could sustain water, it has a radius of 2.4 times that of Earth's, so <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20111206/us-sci-alien-planet/" target="_hplink">it's probably too big</a> to harbor life.

  • Biggest Black Holes Ever Discovered

    Astronomers announced in early December that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/black-hole-scientists-discover-huge_n_1129727.html" target="_hplink">they had found the biggest black holes to date</a>. The massive black holes, which are 10 billion times the size of the sun, are located over 300 million light years away.

  • Europa's 'Great Lakes'

    Scientists had long-thought that a large body of water existed under the surface of Europa, Jupiter's moon, but it was thought to be tens of miles below an icy crust. In November, though, astronomers analyzing data from <a href="http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/galileo/" target="_hplink">NASA's Galileo spacecraft</a> found evidence that suggests blocks of ice interact with water below the surface, which could mean that nutrients and energy are moving between the underground ocean and icy shell. <a href="http://www.ig.utexas.edu/people/staff/britneys/" target="_hplink">Britney Schmidt</a>, the lead author of the study, <a href="http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v479/n7374/full/nature10608.html" target="_hplink">which appeared in the journal Nature</a>, said that the interaction "could make Europa and its ocean more habitable for life." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/17/europa-water-jupiter-moon-photo-video_n_1099463.html#s480278&title=Europa" target="_hplink">Click here to read more</a> about water on Europa.

  • 'Bubbles' At The Edge Of Solar System

    NASA's Voyager probes -- launched over 30 years ago -- found huge magnetic "bubbles" at the edge of the solar system. "The sun's magnetic field extends all the way to the edge of the solar system," astronomer Merav Opher of Boston University <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/voyager/heliosphere-surprise.html" target="_hplink">said in a NASA statement</a>. "Because the sun spins, its magnetic field becomes twisted and wrinkled, a bit like a ballerina's skirt. Far, far away from the sun, where the Voyagers are, the folds of the skirt bunch up." Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched in 1977. Voyager 1 is currently 11 billion miles away and may exit our solar system within the next few years.

  • Gypsum On Mars

    In December, scientists announced that NASA's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/08/mars-water-opportunity-rover-gypsum_n_1136483.html" target="_hplink">Mars Rover Opportunity may have found gypsum </a>that had been deposited by water. "This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock," <a href="http://astro.cornell.edu/people/facstaff-detail.php?pers_id=112" target="_hplink">Steve Squyres</a>, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and the principal investigator for Opportunity <a href="http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mer/news/mer20111207.html" target="_hplink">said in a NASA statement</a>. NASA's Curiosity Rover <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/26/nasa-mars-curiosity-launc_n_1113995.html" target="_hplink">is en route to the Red Planet</a> and will arrive in August 2012.

  • Earth-Size Planets Discovered

    Weeks after <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/05/kepler-22b-new-planet-discovered-habitable-zone_n_1129591.html" target="_hplink">the announcement of Kepler-22b</a>, scientists said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-planets-kepler-exoplanets_n_1161213.html" target="_hplink">they'd discovered Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f</a>, two planets that are about the size of Earth. While the planets are too close to their sun-like star to harbor life as we know it, the discovery proved that the Kepler spacecraft was capable of spotting planets that are Earth-size, and brings us one step closer to finding a true Earth twin. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-planets-kepler-exoplanets_n_1161213.html" target="_hplink">Click here for more</a> on the new planets.

  • Charles Camarda: NASA Innovation