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I am getting conflicting accounts everywhere. I heard astronomers saying Polaris is a 3-star system. Some say they are binary but are optical-doubled with a 3rd.

Phil Plait a renowned astronomer wrote in his book Bad Astronomy that Polaris is sextuple star system.

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The above text reads

... but due to its proximity to the NCP it has taken on the popular name of Polaris. The star itself is actually rather interesting; it's really a multiple star consisting of at least six stars in orbit around each other.

While in his Crash Course Astronomy Series He said Polaris was a Pentuple star system.

Now, I am not saying Phil is doing anything wrong. I am actually a fan of him, enjoyed reading the books he authored. He may have said one or the other by mistake. I tried asking him this question, it does not look like there is an effective way to submit him an Errata or ask him questions like these.

So my question is, how many stars are Polaris and are they all gravitationally bound to each other or some of them are just Optically grouped?

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  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBlow Yes, I don't know if we can post comments like these on here $\endgroup$ – fahadash Jul 12 '16 at 18:30
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Polaris consists of multiple stars,

α UMi Aa is the main star. It is a supergiant, and a cepheid variable. α UMi Ab and α UMi B are smaller (but still larger than the sun) and both are in orbit with α UMi Aa, (the former is close in, the latter is further out).

There are two further stars: α UMi C and D. These stars are thought to have formed before α UMi Aa, and so are not considered to be physically associated with α UMi A. There are other stars that appear nearby, one might be physically associated: J021006.2+891626 J021454.3+890852 are their catalogue numbuers. They are faint, but appear to be the same age as Polaris.

In conclusion, Polaris is known to have 3 stars: Aa, Ab and B. The stars C and D are not physically related to Polaris. There may be one or two more stars that are distant dwarfs and may share Polaris's orbit.

Reference http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0004-6256/139/5/1968

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It's worth noting that in many cases, if not most, we simply don't know the exact answer to such excellent questions as the one you ask.

Note that the book you mention (ISBN-13: 978-0471409762) was written around 2000 and appeared in 2002: that's a really long time ago in terms of all the amazing new instruments which have become available.

For example, while the Hubble telescope was operational when that book was written, the amazing GAIA telescope (link), which would perhaps be relevant to your question, only started operating around 2014.

The youtube video you mention seems to be more up to date - a couple years ago. But then, the author (even if he's an expert) may not especially be keeping up with the latest research and thinking on the particular star system you mention.

So it's worth bearing in mind that many of these questions, we just don't know - it's something that is being actively studied now!

An interesting point to consider: we're not even really sure of the distance to the Polaris system - for goodness sake! That may be a surprise. It looks like estimates of the distance - and they are just estimates - range from roughly 350 to 450 light years. We could be out by a hundred light years.

Regarding your specific question: how many stars are in the system. Don't forget when you look at a specific star, X, let's say it is 500 ly away. In the same "shot" you see a vast number of stars right next to star X. Some of those may be "next door to us" and some may be tremendously further away. It is by no means a "sure thing" to determine if two stars which appear right next to each other, are actually anywhere near each other.

(A good example of that is ... you know the Andromeda Galaxy, which you can even see with your eye. At first, astronomers had no clue if it was a thing (sort of like a star, but cloudy), and as close to us as the other stars, or, if it was an enormous object an incredible distance away. Obviously we now know it is truly huge thing an unbelievably long way away ... but, we only learned that in about 1920 - !!! Not even 100 years ago.)

For a short point on your specific question: note that the book by Plait is some 15+ years old, and the video talk is more recent; in the first instance you can go with the info in the video talk. It's a good example of how astronomy knowledge is dramatically changing all the time.

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    $\begingroup$ Just incidentally. While IANAA ("I am not an astronomer!" :) ), as a professional communicator and engineer, I'm happy to type in pedagogically useful answers to the category of questions asked here by interested beginners. For Actual Scientific Information, just see the answer from James Kilfiger above :) $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jun 21 '16 at 12:37

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