Finding the Northern Star

August 30th, 2017

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 dictate directions. Even more convenient, you could just hail one of the many taxis.

Pretty simple, right?

But 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. 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. Constellations will change. But given how far away this all is, it will take a long, long time for constellation changes to be visible in Dubai. You would literally have to immortal to see these changes, because it will take thousands of lifetimes.

So, as long as you’re coming to stargaze in Dubai within the next 50,000 years, you should be good just learning about the current constellations. 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, just learn 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

What’s interesting about the North Star is that it’s actually only of medium brightness. Tell that to the next person you see.

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 locating Polaris, as it’s also known, gives you a clear idea of which way’s which.

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

  1. Find the Big Dipper, a group of stars that are a part of the constellation Ursa Major (aka the Big Bear). The Big Dipper kind of looks like a cooking pot or large spoon with a handle. 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 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 visibly 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’ve certain you’ve 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. Then, run whichever way you need or please.

Now, you know how to travel in the desert at night like the Bedouin. All that’s left to do is test your skills for real!

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