How to Navigate by the Stars

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Explorers have used the stars as a compass for millennia, and if you’re out having adventures at night, you should add the skill to your arsenal. (If nothing else, it’s a killer party trick.) Here’s how to transform the night sky into your personal roadmap.

1) Learn the Big Three

According to the Royal Naval Academy, 58 stars are handy for navigation. You need to know 38 different constellations to find all of them. If that seems daunting, there’s a cheat code. Just learn to spot three constellations: Cassiopeia, Crux, and Orion. Also keep your eye on the Big and Little Dipper.

2) Find the North Star

It’s always within one degree of true north. So use the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia are your guides. Look at the Dipper’s ladle and pretend you’re pouring soup from it. The flow of that space soup will point straight to the North Star. If you hit a constellation that looks like a wonky ‘W,’ you’ve gone too far. That’s Cassiopeia. Recalculate your cosmic GPS and back up. The North Star is smack between Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper.

3) Shoot for the Moon

If you can find Orion’s sword, following its point will show you south. Alternatively, if there’s a crescent moon, draw an imaginary line from between its tips and follow it to the horizon. That’ll point your toward the penguins.

4) Down Under? No Problem!

The North Star isn’t visible below the equator. Instead, look for the constellation Crux—it resembles a kite. If you draw a line from the top of the kite to the bottom, it’ll point you south.

5) Move Like a Star

Like the sun, stars skate east to west. Tracking how they travel across the sky should tell you which way you’re facing. For something more precise, look to Orion’s belt. The star on the belt’s right side—Mintaka—rises close to true east and sets at true west.

6) Take a Survey

Forgot to memorize your constellations? There’s an easy fix. Simply place two sticks in the ground and set them one yard apart. Now pick a star—any star. Line it up with the tops of both sticks, as if you were looking down a rifle sight. The earth’s rotation will make the star “move.” If it runs left, you’re facing north. If it shifts right, you’re south. If it rises, you’re east. If it sinks, west.
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Now that you know how to use the stars, the sky is your compass. But if you’re trying to locate a more interesting beer, you don’t need the stars for that. Just head for a bar and ask for a Dos Equis.

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March 8, 2013 - 9:23am
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