What happens when you’re lost and you don’t have your phone or any recognizable landmarks to give you directions? Well, you look up at the stars.
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The stars that we see in the sky today are the same ones that guided the ancient Egyptians in building their pyramids and maritime travelers in their travels around the globe. Many of the techniques that guided people in the past are similar to the ones that we use in our modern world. That’s because during any time of the year anywhere on Earth, the stars appear over the horizon at predictable heights and at measurable distances. For example, Polaris — what most people know as the “North Star”— is an easy target when you’re navigating in the Northern Hemisphere.
First thing you want to do is find Ursa Major, also called “The Big Dipper” in the United States. Depending on where you are, and what time of day and year it is, the Big Dipper will be in a different part of the sky, but it’s always circling the North Star. Plus, it’s a pretty recognizable feature.Once you’ve located the Big Dipper, take a look at it’s “bucket”.
On the front edge of this “bucket” are two stars, Merak and Dubhe. Draw an imaginary line from Merak, through Dubhe out to the bright star of Polaris. That’s the North Star! Now that you’ve found the North Star, you’ve also found the “Little Dipper.” The reason we use the North Star is because it hardly moves making it a reliable navigational point. However, the North Star isn’t much help if you’re in the Southern hemisphere. You have to catch it at the right time and place. So, if you’re in the south, you’re going to need the constellation called the “Southern Cross”.
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How to Navigate By the Stars
“As seafarers have done for millenniums, you can determine about how many miles north of the Equator you are by measuring the distance between the North Star and the horizon. To do this, stretch out your arm. For most, one fist equals approximately 10 degrees; latitudinal degrees each represent about 69 miles.”
From dung beetles to seals, these animals navigate by the stars
“Humans have been navigating by the stars since ancient times, but a small yet diverse group of species also use the night sky to get around. Some recognize the movement of star patterns, while others get their bearings via particularly bright individual stars. A few even plot their course via our galaxy, the Milky Way.”
Sextant, Apollo Guidance and Navigation System
“As astronauts traveled toward the Moon, they never were in absolute darkness. Establishing the Earth’s limb was difficult due to the planet’s atmosphere, although the astronauts went through extensive training at the Instrumentation Lab to learn to recognize a point on the horizon that they could return to consistently. On the positive side, correcting for gyroscopic drift was relatively a straightforward process. The astronaut would key in the code for a star into the computer, and the computer in turn would rotate the spacecraft until that star appeared in the telescope’s cross-hairs.”
You can probably point to the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, and your astrological sign in the sky. But what would the constellations look like from another solar system? And will any of Orion’s stars ever become black holes? In Seeker Constellations, we’ll explain the science of the universe’s most famous stars and dive into the culturally significant stories behind them. Most importantly, we’ll provide a guide to where you can see these incredible constellations for yourself!
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