How to Navigate by the Stars

How to Navigate by the StarsThe practice of navigating by the stars is as old as antiquity. In the modern age, light pollution has reduced the night sky to only a few constellations. Fortunately, when hiking in the wilderness, we often find ourselves miles from any electric light source. Here we can appreciate the innumerable stars, watch the movements of the planets, and navigate by the constellations. A rudimentary knowledge of the stars can help you find your way, even in places like New York City.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Learning the Constellations

Step 1
There are a few constellations that every navigator should be aware of. In the Northern Hemisphere, these are the northern constellations of Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are visible all year round, revolving around the North Star. Take some time to become familiar with these two constellations so you can spot them any month of the year. Remember, the stars revolve throughout the year, so at some times of the year expect to find Cassiopeia upside down.
Step 2
Enjoy learning about some of the other constellations, as well. The zodiacal constellations mark the ecliptic, and their rising and setting can be useful for marking east and west, and determining the time and season of the year.
Step 3
Watch the phases of the moon, which is a very useful guide. The phases of the moon depend on its relationship with the sun. A full moon, for example, is in opposition to the sun, and will rise exactly as the sun is setting. A new moon will always appear in the western sky. A new moon is a crescent with the points pointing to the left (or east). It is like the shape made with the right hand's thumb and forefinger extended in a 'C' shape. A first-quarter moon will appear overhead, and a line drawn down from it perpendicular to the horizon, will mark south at sunset.
Step 4
The zenith of the ecliptic, or highest point the stars travel as they appear to rotate around the Earth, will mark south.

Locating the North Star

Step 1
Once you've learned to recognize the Big Dipper, you can always find Polaris, the North Star. The Big Dipper somewhat resembles a frying pan, with a long handle and a rectangular head. Looking at the "head," imagine a straight line from the two furthermost stars. The line should extend perpendicular to the tail of the Dipper, and will point directly toward the North Star. You now have north.
Step 2
Cassiopeia also points toward Polaris, and is on the other side of Polaris, opposite the Big Dipper. Polaris is almost equidistant between them. Cassiopeia resembles a W on its side. Polaris makes the form of an arrow with one of Cassiopeia's points.
Step 3
The North Star does not move, but appears to stay fixed as all the other stars rotate around it.

Determining Latitude

Step 1
Measuring the angle between the horizon and Polaris will provide your latitude. The North Star is on the horizon at the equator (0 degrees), and directly overhead at the North Pole (90 degrees). The angle drawn between the horizon and the North Star for any location will yield the latitude of the observer.
Step 2
If a protractor or sextant isn't available, you can approximate degrees using your fist. Extend your arm toward the horizon, and make a fist. Your fist will take up approximately 10 angular degrees. This is constant for everyone, because people with longer arms typically have larger hands. This can give you a fairly good idea of your latitude.
Step 3
Also worth noting: The full moon, when directly overhead, has an angular size of approximately 30 minutes of arc.

Tips & Warnings

You cannot see the North Star in the Southern Hemisphere. Navigators use the Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere. Extending a line from the stars Acrux and Gacrux approximately four and half times the distance between them, reveals a point roughly due south. Acrux and Gacrux mark the long axis of the Southern Cross.
If you know your zodiacal constellations, you can easily define the ecliptic. With that you can use the rising and setting of stars to determine east and west.

Article Written By Benjamin Williams

Ben Williams is an award-winning reporter and freelance writer based out of Colorado. He has written for conglomerates of newspapers and magazines, supplying news, features, editorial and opinion. While running an Energy Services and consulting firm, he also writes for multiple websites.

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