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Navigating by the Stars

Illuminate your path by using moving markers in the sky to get your bearings.

| May/June 2020

night-sky-with-a-ton-of-stars 
GettyImages/Matt_Gibson

As I write, I’m listening to the song “Stand” by R.E.M. The lyrics include, “Stand in the place where you live/ Now face north/ Think about direction, wonder why you haven’t before/ Now stand in the place where you work/ Now face west, think about the place where you live/ Wonder why you haven’t before.”

I live in northeast Kansas. For my daily commute, I travel east in the morning and west in the evening. On many mornings, I see the sunrise, and in the evenings, I watch the sunset. Each morning, the sun rises at a different point on the eastern horizon, and each evening, it slips below the western horizon at a different point.

What causes the sun to travel across the sky and along the horizon? This is important to understand when we use stars, including our sun, to navigate. Because the Earth is spinning on its axis, the sun, stars, and moon appear to travel across the sky from east to west. The Earth isn’t straight up-and-down on its axis; it has about a 23-degree slant. In addition to spinning, the Earth also travels around the sun once a year. So, each day, the Earth is in a slightly different place in relation to the sun and other more distant stars. The combination of the Earth spinning on its axis, the tilt of the axis, and the daily change in the orbit around the sun causes the sun and stars to appear in different places at different times. (For more information, see “A Lengthy Lineage.”)



Before we look at navigation methods using the stars and sun, there are a few things to understand. First, all the methods in this article only work in the Northern Hemisphere. Second, the sky needs to be clear or partly cloudy for them to work. Third, these techniques will only provide general directions. If you’re lost and know that a road or river that leads to rescue is to the west, for example, these methods will get you headed in the right direction. Finally, practice the techniques before you need them. By practicing, you’ll become proficient at getting your bearings and avoid getting lost. In other words, you’ll “think about direction, wonder why you haven’t before.”

Sighting a Star

This is one of the easiest ways to find direction at night. It works best with a bright star near the horizon. Since it requires just one star, it works on partly cloudy nights, or in places where only a small portion of the sky is visible, such as under a forest canopy.





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