Finding the Northern Star

Finding the Northern Star

If you wanted to find your way during a stay in Dubai, you’d probably use landmarks to help you get there, or a smartphone to give you directions. Even more convenient, you could just call for a taxi. Chances are you could navigate almost anywhere in just a few minutes.

What if you were traveling through the desert at night centuries ago? That sounds a bit trickier.

Thankfully, you can learn something from the Bedouin, who have relied on the stars and moon for navigation since ancient times. They used the stars as a way to mark events on the calendar, to tell stories, and most importantly, for navigation.

Here’s how you can look to the skies like the Bedouins to find your way:

Learn about constellations

Astronomers currently recognize 88 constellations in the sky, including the 12 constellations associated with the zodiac. These 12 constellations mark out the sun’s annual path (or the ecliptic).

Though stars seem fixed in place, they aren’t. They’re moving in their own separate orbits. Because of this, constellations are slowly changing.

Over time as these stars move, the constellations in our night sky will continue to shift as a result. However, given how far away this all is, it will take a long, long time for constellation changes to be visible on earth. It takes so long for a star’s light to reach earth that any differences wouldn’t be visible for thousands of years. You’ll be able to spot most of them during a desert adventure here.

If you want to learn how to use stars to navigate like the Bedouin, a good place to start is learning how to find the North Star. It will never let you down as long as you’re in the Northern Hemisphere (it’s not visible in the Southern Hemisphere).

Finding the North Star

Despite popular belief, the North Star isn’t the brightest star in the sky, it’s actually only of medium brightness.

What’s also interesting is that the axis of the Earth points almost directly at the North Star. At night, the North Star remains in basically that same spot as other stars rotate around it. That means by locating Polaris (another name for it), you will have a clear idea of which direction you are looking at.

To find the North Star quickly, take the following steps:

  1. Find the Big Dipper. It's a group of stars that are a part of the constellation called Ursa Major (aka the Big Bear). The Big Dipper almost looks like a cooking pot or a large spoon. The seven stars that make up the Big Dipper are the brightest group of stars in Ursa Major.
  2. Notice the front two stars of the Big Dipper (outer edge of the spoon or pot). These are called Merak, which is the star at the bottom outer edge, and Dubhe, which is the star at the top outer edge.
  3. Visibly trace a line from Merak to Dubhe. Notice the length
  4. Continue tracing that line outwards in the same direction of the line from Merak to Dubhe. The distance to the North Star is about five times the distance from Merak to Dubhe.
  5. Find the North Star. The North Star actually lies at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. The Little Dipper is a part of the constellation Ursa Minor (aka the Little Bear).

Navigate like the Bedouin

Once you found the North Star, face it. What’s in front of you is north; what’s behind you is south. Stretch your arms out. Your right hand is pointing east; your left hand is pointing west. From there, you’re able to properly travel in any direction that you choose. This is how the ancient people navigated thousands of years ago, and the same technique can be used today.

Now that you know how to travel in the desert at night like the Bedouin, the only thing that’s left to do is test your skills for real on a Private Night Safari with Astronomy!