Finding Your Way by Knowing Your Stars

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

I love stars. They’re beautiful beyond description. They function like a giant perfectly calibrated clock. And they are a connection to the Biblical patriarchs who, millennia ago, saw and spoke of the very same constellations we can see tonight. But my appreciation for these truths has been a journey. Just as the stars themselves can be a journeyer’s navigational guide, and you don’t have to be a NASA research scientist to get your head around any of it.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. (left) as a U.S. Marine infantry leader with one of his Marines during the mid-1980s, in the High Sierras, mastering the art of land navigation: Terrain features by day, stars and constellations by night.

My fascination with stars began as a Cub Scout during a camping trip wherein we “cubs” paired up with a group of older Boy Scouts and ventured somewhere out along the Wateree River in Kershaw County. This was about 50 years ago, but I still remember us darting around in a big multi-acre field surrounded by miles of piney woods playing “flashlight tag,” running and laughing until we could barely catch our breath. Eventually, we collapsed on our backs for what seemed like an hour in the cool grass and looked up at what appeared to be a zillion stars in the clearest blackest sky. The scoutmaster, Mr. Frierson, a retired Army officer, pointed out a lot of the constellations.

Though difficult to make out the various animal-and-other shapes in the sky, that particular overnight outing observing the vast starry sky impressed me far more than the field trips my elementary-school class sometimes made to the Gibbes planetarium in Columbia. Though that too was exciting.

Stars for me are an absolute manifestation of the supreme power of God: His art, orderliness, constancy, and the miracle of 2,000-plus years ago. When I was about eight-years-old, I remember Dad and I standing in front of the Villa Tronco Restaurant in downtown Columbia. It was a few nights before Christmas, and I was looking west down Blanding Street and up into the black sky where I saw a very bright star. I told Dad it might be what the wise men had seen. He agreed. We stood there a few minutes in the cold looking at and talking about the star before we got in the car and headed home. It probably wasn’t the Bethlehem star, but it is a great memory.

If you know your stars, you will never be lost.

Many years later in college, I took two semesters of astronomy as part of my physical science requirement studying the make-up of the planets, the relative size and composition of the stars (mostly hydrogen and helium), and the distances primarily measured in light years from Earth to all things visible in the heavens. But that didn’t aid as much in my love of stars as it did help me better understand the nature of them.

Then in the Marine Corps during land-navigation training followed by real-world practical application, I learned much about how to traverse great distances at night using key stars and various constellations as guides; a skillset that benefits me even today; as it can you, especially in South Carolina.

Here’s why: In terms of geographic location, S.C. is between 33 and 35 degrees north of the equator, which means that on a clear night, our skies offer magnificent views of the celestial heavens. And for nighttime navigation purposes we have a perfect view of the North Star (aka Polaris) all year long, which is critical if you are out hiking, struggling to find your way home, and you’re without GPS capability or any recognizable terrain features. If you know your stars – and frankly they’re not too difficult to learn – you will never be lost.

The basics are simple.  First: Remember that the stars (like the sun) generally rise in the east and set in the west. Not every star, which is why I say “generally” and will explain momentarily. And not that they’re actually rising; but we’re turning toward them. Think about it. The earth is always rotating eastward toward everything in the heavens.

Photo by Martin Bowers, University of South Carolina Melton Observatory. The constellation Orion was photographed by Bowers in Lexington County. Taking photographs of stars requires allowing a longer exposure to light and a tripod. This photo required a thirty second exposure. The Melton Observatory is open to the public, for free, on Mondays between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. beginning November 5th through April 2019 (and while school is in session). Please check hours as they periodically change. All age groups are welcome. (Young children should be closely supervised as equipment is sensitive and can be damaged easily.)

 

Second: Pick up a star guide and learn to identify a few of the constellations and asterisms (star groups that are not full constellations). Easiest to recognize on a cold winter’s night when the moisture is chilled out of the air, are magnificent constellations like Orion, Canis Major, Taurus, and the Pleaides (my favorite by the way) among others.

Third: Learn to recognize and find the Big Dipper (part of the Great Bear) and Cassiopeia. This is key, because these two stellar bodies – the Dipper and Cassiopeia – rotate counterclockwise around Polaris every single night of the year. They are always positioned at different points throughout the night around Polaris. And Polaris never rises or sets.

Photo by Martin Bowers, University of South Carolina Melton Observatory. Big Dipper, part of Ursa Major. The “Ursa Crossing” image contains one special feature: a trail of the International Space Station.

If you know what season of the year it is, you can find the position of either body relative to Polaris and determine what time of night it is. Moreover, find either the Big Dipper or Cassiopeia, then Polaris, and you will easily establish your bearings – knowing precisely which direction is north, south, east, or west – every single clear night of the year. Simple, right?

South of the equator is a bit more challenging, but we’ll save that for another discussion.

We’ll have more specifics about the stars above S.C., and how to build upon the skills of navigating by them in a forthcoming edition of S.C. Wildlife magazine.

– South Carolina native W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine infantry leader and counterterrorism instructor. Visit him online at http://uswriter.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.