Celestial Navigation: History & Explanation

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Celestial navigation was one of the earliest ways in which humans could orient themselves to travel long distances. This lesson reviews basic principles of celestial navigation as well as different cultural and historical traditions of reading the stars.

Principles of Celestial Navigation

With the benefit of modern science today, celestial bodies are seen in technical terms, such as stars, planets, and galaxies. In the past, however, the sky was more akin to an ancient atlas which humans used to navigate long before sophisticated maps were developed.

The basic premise of celestial navigation relies on charting angles between the horizon, the observer, and a reliable celestial body such as the sun, moon, or certain planets and stars. The sun is one of the most ancient sources of celestial navigation and time-keeping because of its size and regularity, always rising in the East and setting in the West.

There are a total of 58 stars out of the roughly 3,000 stars visible in the night sky which are reliable for navigation. Navigational stars need to be bright and consistent. Navigational advice for each star can be found in The Nautical Almanac, which was first published in Great Britain during the 18th century and continues to be used today.

Cultural Traditions of Celestial Navigation and Timekeeping

Towers of the sun at Chankillo, Peru.
Chankillo
solstices

The ancient Maya of Mesoamerica made complex calendars, navigation systems, and temples oriented toward the sun, the moon, and the planet Venus. Venus is one of the brightest planets visible in the night sky from Earth, so it is a reliable tool in celestial navigation.

Ancient Sunstone from northern Europe.
Sunstone
sunstones

History of Celestial Navigation and the Contemporary World

The North Star, Polaris
Polaris
PolarisSouthern Cross

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