WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Navy reinstates ancient art and science of celestial navigation

Posted October 20, 2015

A United States Naval Academy instructor holds a sextant during classroom instruction on celestial navigation (Credit: U.S. Navy/Tyler Caswell)

After a nine-year absence from the curriculum at the United States Naval Academy (USNO) and 15 years from Naval ROTC programs, tomorrow’s naval officers are once again learning to navigate by the stars. The class of 2017 will be the first in many years to graduate with a basic knowledge of celestial navigation (CELNAV).

"It is a core competency of a mariner," said Director of Professional Development Cmdr. Adan Cruz. "If we can navigate using celestial navigation, then we can always safely get from point A to point B."

Similar techniques were used by ancient Polynesians to find their way across thousands of miles of open Pacific Ocean. Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper studied the topic at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill which saved his life. Navigation controls failed forcing Cooper to reorient his spacecraft for safe reentry by the stars.

"Everyone is reliant on technology, but celestial navigation is very self-sufficient. There's not a more basic way than to use the sails and the stars," said Midshipman 1st Class Jared Valeske.

The return of low-tech methods to find your location on the Earth’s surface provides backup to technology relied upon by the Navy today. A GPS system failure could occur for a number of reasons from failures anywhere from the satellite down to the shipboard receivers. Midshipmen at the academy also take classes focused on vulnerabilities in electronic communications and navigation systems to cyber attack.

“Cyber affects all battlefields to include sea, land, air and space," said Director of Center of Cyber Security Studies Capt. Paul J. Tortora.

All second-class Midshipmen at the academy currently take Navigation 310: Advanced Navigation during their junior year. The course now includes three hours of celestial familiarization and principals of CELNAV.

The material also returned to the navigation course for Naval ROTC students at UNC Chapel Hill, Duke and NC State this year as well, according to Lt. James Showiness, Assistant Professor of Naval Science at NC State.

Midshipmen learn “theory, principles, and procedures of ship navigation, movements and employment. Dead reckoning, piloting, celestial and electronic principles of navigation.”

You can learn how to steer by the stars too. Course material is available through the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s MetEd program. MetEd is a familiar resource to the meteorologists here at WRAL and other geoscientists worldwide but courses are available to anyone interested in learning more about the topic.

The Navy's "Principles of Celestial Navigation" and "Introduction to Geodesy and Maps” courses are among hundreds available free of charge.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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