Video: How To Navigate Using The Stars

Video: How To Navigate Using The Stars

how to navigate using the stars

In today’s world, the navigation is much easier and simple than what it used to be a hundred years back or may be even 50 years back. Nowadays, we have GPS (Global Positioning System) which tells us our real-time location (latitude and longitude). We can easily know which direction we’re heading to. But the art of finding directions using the stars can still be useful, because the technology and electronic gadgets do fail at times.

The tricks to find directions using the stars is not only useful at sea but can also be very helpful on land, specially when you’ve lost your way.

Many people adore the idea of finding direction and navigating using the stars, but doesn’t actually go on to learn the tricks because they fear it is complicated. Whereas, finding direction using the stars is fun and much quicker and easier than using a compass.

In earlier times, there were many ideas as to what the stars were. The Greeks saw constellations, as per Chinese mythology some stars represented actual people, some Siberian tribes believed that the stars are crystal lenses used by the gods to watch the earth. With the technological advancements, we now know that these beliefs and story are not correct and in fact, stars are giant gas clouds glowing from the process of nuclear fusion billions of miles away. But of these ancient understandings of the stars one remains true to this day – the navigation using the stars.

Now, let’s come back to our question, ‘How do you navigate using the stars?’ Well, the fact is that the stars are not static in our skies, but instead they streak across the sky as the Earth revolves. Hence using a moving star as a reference point for navigation is problematic, especially for the long journeys/voyages. So first important thing to remember is that you can’t just pick any star in the sky and follow in its direction.

The same problem is present for the sun and moon for navigation as they will move across the sky in a similar way. So what’s needed is a reference point that no matter the year, month, week or day will always lead you in the same direction.

One last thing before we get started, is the stars used for navigation vary depending on which hemisphere you’re in, North or South, as the stars in the Northern Hemisphere can’t be seen from the Southern hemisphere and vice versa. So knowing all that, let’s get into it.

Northern Hemisphere

In the Northern Hemisphere we’ll find perhaps the most well known star for navigation, Polaris, the North Star. Luckily, Polaris sits virtually on top of true north, just a fraction of a degree off and because of this, it barely moves in the sky. All the other stars spin around it. This can be seen best in the below long exposure photograph.

polaris - long exposure photograph
Image Credit: Atlas Pro

It can clearly be seen that all the moving stars make long streaks but at the centre is Polaris, hardly moved at all.

Finding the ‘POLARIS’

Finding the North Star is fairly simple. It’s the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper or the Little Bear. Polaris is the last star in the handle.

Polaris in Ursa Minor
Ursa Minor/Little Dipper/Little Bear. Arrow pointing towards Polaris. Image Credit- Atlas Pro

If you’re having trouble spotting it, you can look for Ursa Major, the Big Dipper or the Big Bear, which is much easier to spot. Once you found the Big Dipper you can use its end star, ‘Dubhe’ and ‘Merak’ and follow the path they make straight to Polaris.

Dubhe Merak in Ursa Major
Image Credit: Atlas Pro
Polaris from Ursa Major
Image Credit: Atlas Pro

If clouds are covering Polaris, but not the Big Dipper, know that Polaris lies roughly five lengths of distance between Dubhe and Merak away. Also be aware that while Polaris stays relatively Still, the Big Dipper like the rest of the stars will move and sometimes may be covered by objects on the horizon like mountains or trees, so it’s best to look for Polaris on high ground. Once you spot the Polaris, it indicates the True North, hence you have now found out where is the North direction relative to your position.

Now you might be wondering, what about for going south? Can we just find the North Star and sail in the opposite direction? Well, no without a point to aim your ship out, there’s no real way to ensure you’re sailing in the right direction. So what do we do to find the ‘South’? You’ll need to find another well known constellation Orion.

Image Credit- Atlas Pro

Orion in fact just looks like a bunch of random stars. Don’t worry, all you need to know about is its belt, called Orion Belt. From the Orion Belt, you’ll need to find what’s called Orion sword which hangs from his belt. Orion sword is also made up of 3 stars, a dim star, a fuzzy star and a bright star. That fuzzy star isn’t actually a star but a huge gas cloud called the Orion Nebula where new stars are actually being made.

Orion belt with sword
Image showing 3 stars forming Orion Belt. Below Orion Belt is Orion Sword. Image Credit: Atlas Pro

If you follow the direction of this sword down to the horizon, this point should lead South this gets a little inaccurate when the constellation is lower in the sky, but should still bring you south.

true south from orion sword
Image Credit: Atlas Pro

Southern Hemisphere

In the southern hemisphere, things are little tough as compared to the Northern Hemisphere. Here we’ll find probably the second most popular method of using stars for directions right after Polaris. ‘The Southern Cross’ or ‘Crux’.

Finding the CRUX

The crux or the southern cross can be seen as a cross with an extra blemish star.

The Southern Cross / Crux. Image Credit: Atlas Pro

Some may find this one a bit harder to find in the sky as just about any four stars can make a cross in the sky, but there’s a way to help you find the right one. To the side of the crux, there will always be two bright stars, sometimes easier to spot than the crux itself. These are called the pointer stars, these stars always point towards the crux and can confirm for you if you’re unsure that you are in fact using the proper stars.

pointer stars
Pointer stars pointing towards the Southern Cross. Image Credit: Atlas Pro

After you’ve located the crux and its pointers, you’re going to need to do some more line drawing in your head. Using the top and bottom stars of the crux, draw a line out from the bottom of the cross then from the two pointer stars draw a line out that’s perpendicular to them going in the same direction as the line from the cross where these two lines meet is south. So just draw a line straight down to the horizon from that and you should be good again. This is not 100 percent absolutely perfect South but within a degree.

True South from Crux
Image Credit: Atlas Pro

Unfortunately, there’s no good way of finding north in the southern hemisphere as Polaris is blocked by the earth. But there are a few more tricks that you can use in either hemisphere, depending on what time of year it is.

Finding East and West Near Equator

If you’re near the equator, and you need to know east and west, you’ll again have to find Orion’s belt, particularly the leading star, meaning the first one that will rise above the horizon. This star is called Mintaka as we discussed earlier, and the point on the horizon where it rises is always true east and the point on the horizon where it sets is always true West.

Finding Any Direction Using A Star (Anywhere On The Earth)

There’s one more easy trick, no matter where you are on Earth. First take two sticks and drive them in the ground roughly a yard or a metre apart. Then pick a star in the sky and adjust yourself so that the stakes align and line up with this star.

It is preferable to pick a bright star as it is easy to keep track of and then all you need to do is wait for the star to move out of alignment with the two sticks depending on which way it moves, you know about the direction you are facing.

  • If the star rose, you’re facing east.
  • If the star sank, you’re facing west.
  • If the star moved to the left, you’re facing north.
  • If the star moved to the right, you’re facing south.

Here is a wonderful video which summarises and nicely explains all the methods stated above, enjoy the video and learn something useful today:

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