Imagine you’re lost in the wilderness. You don’t have a map or compass, but you have the sun, moon, and stars in the sky.
This guide, “Celestial Navigation-15 Ways To Navigate Using The Sun, Moon, And Stars,” presents ways to use these heavenly bodies to find your way home.
Think of it as an adventure where the universe becomes your map and guide.
So get ready to learn tips and tricks to help you navigate like the great explorers of old.
Remember, just like theirs, your journey starts with a single step—and a glance up at the sky.
Understanding Celestial Bodies
What are celestial bodies?
When you look at the night sky and see all those twinkling lights? Those are called celestial bodies.
Celestial bodies are things like stars, planets, the sun, and the moon that are out there in the space above us.
But they’re not just looking pretty; we humans have discovered that we can use them to help us find our way around.
Identifying major celestial bodies
Some of the most known celestial bodies are the sun, the moon, and many stars like Polaris, also known as the North Star.
We also have a lot of planets like Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, which we can see at different times of the year.
Each celestial body has different features, making them easy to spot if you know what to look for.
Historical use of celestial navigation
Long before we had maps or GPS on our phones, people had to figure out other ways to find their way around.
One of the most important ways they did this was by using the stars, the sun, and the moon for navigation.
People used celestial bodies to figure out where they were and which way to go, just like a map.
Using the Sun for Navigation
The principle of solar navigation
The sun is super useful for navigation because where it is in the sky can help you figure out your direction.
If you’re in the northern hemisphere, meaning on the top half of Earth, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
During the day, it also moves across the southern part of the sky. This helps us figure out which way is north and south.
How to find North using the sun and sticks
You can use a stick and the sun’s shadow to find north. How?
Put a stick on the ground and mark where the shadow ends.
Wait a bit, then mark where the shadow ends again. A line between your two marks will give you an east-west line.
With your back towards the sun in the morning, north is to your left.
In the video below, Jeff illustrates the shadow stick method.
How to find North using the sun and wristwatch
To use the sun and your analog watch to find north, do the following:
- Determine the location of the sun and a shadow cast by the sun, if needed.
- Point the hour hand of your watch towards the sun; avoid looking directly at the sun.
- Make sure the watch is flat towards the ground.
- Use a bisection line halfway between your watch’s hour hand and the 12 markers; you now have the north direction.
- In the southern hemisphere, point the number 12 marker on your watch face towards the sun rather than the hour hand.
The use of sundials
A sundial is a tool that uses the sun’s shadow to tell what time it is. It’s like a clock but uses the sun instead of batteries or electricity.
While modern clocks have replaced sundials, sundials can still work today if it’s sunny out.
Using the sun in different seasons for solar navigation
Seasons can change how the sun moves in the sky. In summer, the sun is higher in the sky, and in winter, it is lower.
The shadows the sun casts are longer in winter and shorter in summer.
This makes the sun tricky for navigation, but it can still be useful once you understand it.
Using the Moon for Navigation
The principle of lunar navigation
Lunar navigation is about using the moon to find your way. The most obvious way the moon helps us navigate is by providing light at night. But on top of that, we can also use the position and phase of the moon to figure out our direction.
The Moon’s rotation and its impact on navigation
Like the Earth, the moon also spins or rotates. This rotation gives us the moon’s phases: new moon, crescent moon, half moon, and full moon. Depending on the phase, the moon can be more or less helpful for navigation.
How the Moon’s phases can assist in navigation
The phases of the moon can tell us a lot. When the moon’s shape is just a sliver or crescent, the moon rises and sets at nearly the same time as the sun.
When the moon is half full, it is high in the sky around sunset or sunrise, depending on whether it is waxing or waning.
Lastly, a full moon rises at sunset and can provide light all night.
Understanding moonrise and moonset for navigation
Like the sun, the moon rises in the east and sets in the west. This can be an easy way to tell direction if you watch the moon go up or down.
But the moon moves slower than the sun, so its position can also help us figure out the time at night.
Using the Stars for Navigation
The principle of stellar navigation
Stellar navigation means using stars to help find your way.
Like everything else in the sky, stars move as the night goes on.
But one star stays in the same place – the North Star. Finding this star can help you know which way is north.
Identifying constellations used for navigation
Constellations are groups of stars that look like they are forming a picture in the sky.
Some important constellations for navigation are Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, which contain the North Star.
How the Earth’s rotation affects star position
The earth is always spinning, which makes the stars look like they are moving across the night sky.
But the earth is moving, not the stars. Because of this, where the stars are in the sky changes throughout the night.
Star charts and their use
A star chart is like a map of the stars. It can show you where some of the most notable stars and constellations are.
Using a star chart can make it a bit easier to navigate at night.
Astronomy magazine shows how to use a star chart in the video below.
Latitude and Longitude, their role in celestial navigation
Celestial navigation uses the position of celestial bodies to figure out latitude and longitude.
By observing the stars, ancient navigators could determine the angle between celestial bodies and the horizon.
This angle and the observation time could help determine their exact position on Earth.
What are latitude and longitude?
Latitude and longitude are like invisible lines that go around our earth. They help us say exactly where on earth something is.
Latitude lines go from side to side, and longitude lines go from top to bottom. Think of it as a giant grid on a ball.
How is latitude calculated?
The Equator is the line that goes around the middle of the earth, from side to side, splitting it into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
It’s the starting line for measuring latitude.
The North Pole has a latitude of 90 degrees north, and the South Pole has a latitude of 90 degrees south.
How is longitude calculated?
Longitude is measured from a line called the Prime Meridian.
The Prime Meridian line goes from the North Pole to the South Pole and passes through Greenwich, England, where it gets its name.
It’s like the starting line for measuring longitude.
If you go east from the Prime Meridian, the longitude increases; if you go west, it decreases.
Enjoy the video below and learn how to find the longitude and the latitude.
Celestial Navigation Tools
History and development of the astrolabe
The astrolabe is a very old tool for figuring out how stars move. The astrolabe is like a map and a clock all in one.
This tool, invented over a thousand years ago, was very important for navigators before modern technologies.
How to use an astrolabe for navigation
To use an astrolabe, you must hold it up to the sky and line it up with a star. Then, you can use it to measure the height of a star above the horizon.
This helps determine your latitude, which is how far north or south you are.
History and function of the sextant
The sextant is another tool to help navigate using the celestial bodies.
It has a big arm that moves and can be used to measure the angle between two objects, like a star and the horizon.
This measure can then be used to find out where you are on Earth.
How to use a sextant
To use a sextant, look through it at a star or the sun, then move the big arm until the star touches the horizon. The number that the arm is pointing at is the angle between the star and the horizon. This number, along with some math and a book of tables, tells you where you are.
Continue your sextant tutorial Sextant: Errors and Corrections.
Learn Taking Sights With a Sextant by watching the linked video.
Error Sources in Celestial Navigation
Understanding the concept of error in navigation
Think of navigation errors as getting lost and ending up in a different place than where you meant to go.
If errors happen during a big voyage, like a ship sailing across the ocean, it can end up way off course with possible dire consequences.
This is why always being careful when navigating is important, especially on a big trip!
Common sources of error using celestial navigation
Even with tools and skills, things can still mess up your navigation.
You could make a mistake reading your tool, or the tool could be a little bit off.
Also, if it’s cloudy out, you might not be able to see the celestial bodies you need to.
How to minimize or correct these errors
To keep errors small, always be careful and accurate when taking measurements.
Check your reading a few times to make sure it seems right. And remember, practice makes perfect.
The more you navigate, the better you will get at it.
Celestial Navigation in the Modern World
The emergence and influence of GPS
These days, we have something called GPS, or Global Positioning System, that uses satellites to tell us where we are.
This is great because it works all the time, day or night, and in any weather.
But it also means that fewer people learn to navigate using the stars and the sun anymore.
Relevance of celestial navigation today
Even though we now have GPS, there are reasons why celestial navigation is useful.
GPS doesn’t always work, especially if you’re in a remote place or if the battery on your device runs out.
Understanding celestial navigation can connect you with ancient navigators and help you understand more about the world and the universe.
Learning Celestial Navigation
Some people, especially those who sail boats or like to go hiking in remote areas, still learn and use celestial navigation.
If you want to learn celestial navigation, some schools can teach you how, and there are celestial navigation online courses you can get started with.
Check out this online celestial navigation course below.
Navigational Strategies at Sea
Various strategies for sea navigation using celestial bodies
The ocean is a big, open place without any landmarks to show you where you are.
This is why sailors have always relied on celestial navigation; they use the stars, the sun, and the moon to know where they are and where they are headed.
Navigators at sea can use many different strategies to find their way. For example, they can use the sun’s rising and setting to figure out east and west, the
North Star to figure out north, and the angle between the horizon and a star or the sun to figure out their latitude.
Limitations of celestial navigation at sea
While celestial navigation is very helpful at sea, it does have some limitations.
For example, if it’s very cloudy for many days in a row, you might not be able to see the celestial bodies very well.
Also, celestial navigation can be tricky, and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it.
Famous historical sea voyages relying on celestial navigation
Many famous sea voyages relied on celestial navigation, from the ancient Pesse canoe sailed, the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Norse explorers, China’s diplomatic voyages, European exploration, and other famous voyages.
The Future of Celestial Navigation
How celestial navigation technology is evolving
As technology improves, so does celestial navigation; we now have electronic sextants that can automatically do some hard calculations.
We also have modern star charts that are accurate and can be updated with new information.
Prediction for future navigation methods
As we understand more and more about our world and the universe, we can create even better ways to navigate.
For example, we might be able to use things like the movement of galaxies or the precise timing of rapidly rotating neutron stars, pulsars, to navigate in the future.
Click on this video to see how pulsars could be used to navigate.
Interested in why the Navy is considering using celestial navigation to replace GPS navigation? Continue reading.
Celestial Navigation in a Nutshell
Knowing an age-old skill like celestial navigation can still be useful in a world heavily reliant on technology.
Knowing how to navigate with the sun, moon, and stars can save you from getting lost should your digital navigation tools fail or if you find yourself in a place where they’re unavailable.
Understanding celestial navigation links you to ancient navigators and gives you a special connection to the world around you and the universe beyond.