Polaris is a multiple star, comprising the main star (Polaris Aa, a yellow supergiant) in orbit with a smaller companion (Polaris Ab); the pair in orbit with Polaris B (discovered in August 1779 by William Herschel). There were once thought to be two more distant components—Polaris C and Polaris D—but these have been shown not to be physically associated with the Polaris system.
Polaris Aa is a 5.4 solar mass (M☉) F7 yellow supergiant of spectral type Ib. This is the first classical Cepheid to have a mass determined from its orbit. The two smaller companions are Polaris B, a 1.39 M☉ F3 main-sequence star orbiting at a distance of 2400 astronomical units (au), and Polaris Ab (or P), a very close F6 main-sequence star with an 18.8 au radius orbit and 1.26 M☉.
Polaris B can be seen even with a modest telescope. William Herschel discovered the star in August 1779 using a reflecting telescope of his own, one of the best telescopes of the time. By examining the spectrum of Polaris A, it was also discovered in 1929 that it was a very close binary, with the secondary being a dwarf (variously α UMi P, α UMi an or α UMi Ab), which had been theorized in earlier observations (Moore, J. H. and Kholodovsky, E. A.). In January 2006, NASA released images, from the Hubble telescope, that showed the three members of the Polaris ternary system. The nearest dwarf star is in an orbit of only 18.5 au (2.8 billion km) from Polaris A, about the distance between the Sun and Uranus), which explains why its light is swamped by its close and much brighter companion.
Polaris A, the supergiant primary component, is a low-amplitude Population I classical Cepheid variable, although it was once thought to be a type II Cepheid due to its high galactic latitude. Cepheids constitute an important standard candle for determining distance, so Polaris, as the closest such star, is heavily studied. The variability of Polaris had been suspected since 1852; this variation was confirmed by Ejnar Hertzsprung in 1911.
The range of brightness of Polaris during its pulsations is given as 1.86–2.13, but the amplitude has changed since discovery. Prior to 1963, the amplitude was over 0.1 magnitude and was very gradually decreasing. After 1966 it very rapidly decreased until it was less than 0.05 magnitude; since then, it has erratically varied near that range. It has been reported that the amplitude is now increasing again, a reversal not seen in any other Cepheid.