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When I took astronomy classes in college, we were taught many ways to read the stars, and how to determine time or direction from their location. One of the key points to keep in mind is that in the Northern Hemisphere, all the stars appear to rotate counterclockwise around Polaris (the North Star) because of the Earth’s rotation.

If you have a fixed site to observe stars — such as two stakes driven into the ground where you site over them, or at a fixed location where you site a distant peak — you will observe that a given star will return to the very exact site of the first observation in exactly 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.09 seconds. This is the period of time known as the sidereal day. It almost corresponds to the average solar day of 24 hours. This means that if you go outside at a precise location and observe the same constellation each night at the exact same time, say, 10 p.m., the constellation will not be at the exact same location.

One practical way to grasp the apparent motion of the stars is to attempt to tell time by the position of the stars. Our astronomy professor had us photocopy and cut out the round dial that appears on Page 95. We then brought this along on our field trips and used it to tell time by the location of the stars.


“The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature be Your Guide,” by Tristan Gooley, The Experiment, 2010.

“The Stars: A New Way to See Them,” by H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1976. (Originally published 1952). This is the best way to learn to recognize the constellations.

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About American Survival Guide

February 2020