Guiding Lights

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Guiding Lights

Several especially bright stars highlight the eastern sky on January evenings. The list includes Betelgeuse and Rigel in Orion, Pollux and Castor in Gemini, and the brightest star of all, Sirius, in the big dog.

For millennia, these and other stars were guiding lights, helping people find their way around the world — and beyond.

Celestial navigation combines observations of the positions of two or more stars or other celestial bodies, precise timing, and some calculations. A skilled navigator can use the technique to reach a destination with a high degree of accuracy — to within a few hundred yards and a couple of minutes.

Centuries ago, Polynesian sailors used the technique to island-hop across the Pacific Ocean. European explores used it to find their way to the Americas and the Far East. American sailors used it as well, plying the world’s oceans in times of war and peace. And Apollo astronauts used it to help them get to the Moon.

With the advent of GPS in the 1980s and ’90s, though, celestial navigation began to die off. GPS is easier to use and more accurate. The United States Naval Academy even dropped celestial navigation from its classes.

But a few years ago, the academy restored its training — in part because technology can fail or be blocked. All midshipmen receive a basic introduction, while navigators get more advanced training – in finding their way with the help of the stars.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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