Finding North (or for some…Finding South)

I will admit I am a bit of a nerd…actually…I am a complete geek.   One of the many hobbies I enjoy is astronomy. I own multiple telescopes, filters, eyepieces, astrophotography equipment, a solar filter, etcetera and etcetera.

Now…I understand what may be of interest to me may not be as fascinating to you, but there is true merit for the prepper to become familiar with the night sky.

Why?

If one learns the positions of the stars in sky, one can gain valuable information.

What information?

The stars have been excellent direction pointers and time keepers for thousands of years. Many bygone travelers have plotted their paths by them, and many past civilizations have used them as their calendars and clocks. If you ever find yourself without a compass at night, you too, with this knowledge, would be able to find your way.

Now, one of the first things people often ask me about astronomy is how to locate the North Star, otherwise known as Polaris. I am actually quite surprised by how many adults don’t seem to know this, and I consider it to be one of the most basic survival skills one can learn. So for those of you out there who don’t know, or for those who just need a quick refresher, this post is about the first skill of star navigation and time keeping: finding the North Star.

The first step is to learn to recognize the asterism known as the Big Dipper. If you do not know what an asterism is, it is an easily distinguished group of stars in the heavens, and it is often part of larger groups of stars known as constellations. In the Big Dipper’s case, it belongs as a part of the constellation known as Ursa Major, which means “Big Bear.” The Big Dipper is also known by a number of other names in different parts of the globe. In some European cultures, it is known as “the Plough” or “the Wagon,” and in some Asian cultures, the seven stars which make up the asterism are known as sages or even as gods. Regardless of the name, the stars of this asterism are bright, and easily discernible, and they appear in the shape of a pot with a handle. The Big Dipper always appears in the northern sky. This is because it is circumpolar, which means it never falls below the northern horizon for most locations in the Northern Hemisphere. Instead of rising and setting, its path appears to go in a circle. The point that it appears to revolve around is actually the celestial North Pole, or in other words, the point of the heavens directly above the Earth’s North Pole. This point in the sky conveniently has a bright star close by which is known in astronomy as Polaris, which is more commonly called the North Star.

To find the North Star, using the Big Dipper, find the edge of the “pot” that does not have the handle. Follow the “edge of the pot” away from what would be the “rim of the bowl” and go upward about five lengths equal to the “edge of the pot.” There is a bright star there, and this is the North Star. Hence, you have found your direction north.

Obviously, these directions apply to those who are in the Northern Hemisphere because that is where the Big Dipper is visible. So what if you were in the Southern Hemisphere? For those of you in the southern part of the globe, the equivalent is the constellation known as the Southern Cross.

In this case, of course, you would be using the stars to find south rather than north.

To do so, you need to identify two groups of stars. The first is a constellation of bright stars known as the Crux, which is more commonly known in English as the Southern Cross. It is shaped accordingly. The second group to recognize is nearby. It is made of two bright stars which are part of the constellation Centaurus. These stars are actually “star systems,” and one of these multi-star systems, known as Alpha Centauri, actually includes the closest star to our Sun. Once you identify the Southern Cross, and find Alpha Centauri and the other star system, Beta Centauri, look at the Cross and visualize a line extending from the length of the cross, and continue it straight into space. Next, visualize a line joining the two bright Centauri stars, and then picture a line perpendicular to this line you just drew. Follow this new line until it crosses the line you had drawn into space from the Southern Cross. Where these two imaginary pathways intersect is known as the celestial South Pole, which is found directly above the South Pole of the Earth. When you identify this point in the sky, you will know that you have identified the way south.

O.K….so you found north (or south.) Well, then you can fill in the blanks and have the rest of your compass bearings to aid in finding direction. This is the first skill in star navigation. In addition, as you continue to learn to read the sky, you will go on and add to this skill. With the knowledge of the stars, you will gain the abilities to keep track of time and to find direction from any part of the sky, because if one knows the constellations well enough, any part of the sky will guide you.

 

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