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Celestial Navigation has always been an interest of mine. Just knowing all that’s required is to look up towards the heavens and discern direction based on constellations is amazing to me.
Most people understand the concept of the earth revolving around the sun and in turn, its own rotation. It’s also important to grasp that here in the Northern Hemisphere, the stars may seem to spin around the North Star, or Polaris, rising in the east and setting in the west, but in reality it’s actually the earth rotating around the other way.
Today we’ll be taking a look at how you can easily navigate with the knowledge of a few key constellations.
Big Dipper and Cassiopeia
These two constellations, Ursa Major (aka the Big Dipper) and Cassiopeia, are guideposts for finding Polaris and one of the two (if not both) are always visible in the night sky. They both rotate around Polaris and may occasionally fall below your horizon, but never “set.”
The Big Dipper looks like a ladle with a long handle, created by seven stars. The outer two stars, Merak and Dubhe, are “pointer” stars. If you imagined that you and a buddy each have a ladle and were toasting each other, the two stars that make up this edge are what would clank together.
By drawing an imaginary line through these two stars, roughly five times their combined distance from each other, you’ll be right on Polaris. Just keep in mind that the Big Dipper is rotating counter-clockwise around polaris, so while it might appear at different angles, the pointers will always line up correctly.
Opposite the Big Dipper is Cassiopeia, a “W” shaped constellation made up of five stars. The middle star, Gamma, which forms the middle tip of the “W,” is the pointer star. By following Gamma the same distance as you did from The Big Dipper, you’ll hit Polaris, or the North Star.
Now that you’ve located north, all that’s left to do is stretch your arms out to find east with your right hand and west with your left hand. South will be directly behind you.
Polaris is also the last star in “tail” of Ursa Minor (aka the Little Dipper.) Depending on where you’re at and the light pollution there, you might be able to find the Little Dipper and the North Star without needing to use the Big Dipper or Polaris.
Something to also consider, provided you can see the horizon, is finding your latitude based on the angle between the North Star and the horizon. Since latitude lines run east-west and are measured by the distance north or south of the equator (zero degrees), it can help you determine how far north you are.
By taking a fist out in front of you, count how many “fists” are between the North Star and the horizon. This is approximately 10 degrees for every fist. So four fists would mean 40˚ and put you on the same latitude as Denver, Colorado. Obviously hand sizes differ, but just being able to approximate latitude may help you out.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the techniques I’ve gone over here won’t work. While I’ll save this information for a future article, the Southern Cross (aka Crux) can be used to find direction in the southern sky.
I also can’t recommend a Star Pointer enough, it’s a simple 5 mW laser pointer that can illuminate or “point” to different stars. I picked one up a few years back to teach celestial navigation to Boy Scouts in our Troop and it really helps in identifying what you want someone to be looking at.
There are plenty of companies out there that manufacturer them, but I purchased a Green Laser Pointer from Z-Bolt and have been happy with it over the past few years. It’s been a good investment.
Get out there and practice picking out the constellations that will help guide your way and share it with friends and family. Navigating by the stars is something everyone should know how to do.
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I'm a lifeline boater, and USCG-licensed Captain.
Celestial navigation has helped sea captains for centuries, and then airplane pilots during the early days of aviation, though World War II.
Navigating by the stars is an amazing skill to learn. But, it's almost as "risky" for newbies, too! Too many rookies "forget" that most of the stars appear to move across our sky. e.g. they aim for a star, and head in that direction -- only to have it move across the sky, and lead them in a new/wrong direction.
Also, on CLEAR nights, the sky seems to be filled with COUNTLESS stars. It's VERY EASY to lose site/track of "your" star.
We recently performed a crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. We experienced a SERIOUS tropical storm, that knocked-out ALL of our electronics (except for our depth gauge, and our magnetic compass.) But, the compass hadn't been recalibrated for this area/region (yet.) The crossing was SUPPOSED to be clear, with seas of one foot or less. Instead, we experienced a TERRIBLE storm, with sharp 6-8 foot seas, and a starless night.
As much as we WISH we could have leveraged the skies for our navigation -- the Gods would have no mercy. No land in sight, no moon, no stars. As the sun rose, we never even saw it, either. Just grey skies...
Thankfully, the compass was "good enough" to get us heading in the right general direction (eastward.) It was pointless to focus on a specific bearing. "Easterly" was good enough. We were in the Gulf of Mexico, after all. Sooner or later, we'd run into Florida's coastline.
So, we watched the depth gauge, until the waters shallowed to about 12 feet. We then turned right/southerly. If the waters became less than 10 feet deep, we knew that we were getting too close to shore, and risk running into barrier islands, or shoals. If the water depth grew to nearly 20 feet, we knew that we would be too far offshore to catch the lights of Tampa/Clearwater/St Petersburg -- still hours ahead of us.
After what seemed like an ENDLESS 48 hours, we indeed FINALLY caught the lights of Clearwater, Florida -- safe passage -- with nothing much more than dead-reconing via an essentially-broken compass, and a depth gauge. (If the depth gauge had broken, too, I would have created a lead-line based on the length of our boat (for 40 foot, long, 14 feet wide.) I would have checked the water depth every 30-60 minutes to ensure whether we were 14 feet deep, or more/less...
I guess what I'm trying to say with all this, is that celestial navigation is a GREAT thing to learn! But, people need to be careful that it also doesn't lead them astray! EVERYONE should keep a compass in their possession (even if it's broken, or not calibrated.) When the sun rose for us, the eastern sky was just light/grey enough, for us to kinda "orientate" ourselves to the compass -- and know what "east" was. So, even a semi-functional compass, can be of more benefit than the stars (especially when you have limited visibility of the stars/sky.)
We LOVE to star-gaze while camping!!! We enjoy finding satellites among all the shimmers of light. Since some of these are in geo-stationary orbits (e.g. for satellite TV service) -- knowing where these "artificial" stars are located, can be of GREAT benefit to your navigation efforts, too! (e.g. they will NOT "move" on you!) Most of the TV satellites for Directv and such are in the southern sky. So, if you can spot these, then you kinda have a "fix" on "south" -- and can orientate yourself.
Another hint: In the daytime, when you are disoriented in a city, you can kinda look at the rooftops and balconies for TV satellite dishes (they will all be pointing generally south in the USA.) They are also usually mounted on the south-facing side of the buildings, too. (e.g. while rumor has it that moss grows on the north/shady side of trees -- satellite dishes grow on the south/sunny side of buildings.)
That first photo is marvelous. I grabbed copy to use as a desktop picture.
You might want to add a warning that laser pointers such as Star Pointer are powerful enough they can create problems for aircraft pilots, temporarily blinding them.. You can get into very big trouble with the FAA for that. If you get one, don't use it around airports and, when you do use it, keep your eye out for the flashing strobes of aircraft and helicopters. The latter is particularly likely to be flying low.
Aircraft get all the attention, but the same is true of ships and cars. Treat a powerful laser like a loaded gun. Never point it at anyone, however distant they might be. They are not toys.