The Stars are in our Future

Well, celestial navigation is, anyway.

The same techniques guided ancient Polynesians in the open Pacific and led Sir Ernest Shackleton to remote Antarctica, then oriented astronauts when the Apollo 12 was disabled by lightning, the techniques of celestial navigation.

A glimmer of the old lore has returned to the Naval Academy.

Officials reinstated brief lessons in celestial navigation this year, nearly two decades after the full class was determined outdated and cut from the curriculum.

That decision, in the late 1990s, made national news and caused a stir among the old guard of navigators.

Maritime nostalgia, however, isn’t behind the return.

Rather, it’s the escalating threat of cyber attacks that has led the Navy to dust off its tools to measure the angles of stars.

After all, you can’t hack a sextant.

I was in the “never should have quit” camp, btw. That’s the same position I take on paper maps and protractors for land navigation.

USNA Celestial Navigation


This 1940s sextant is among the supply stored at the Naval Academy. Midshipmen were tested on celestial navigation for more than a century before the required class was cut in the late 1990s. (By Tim Prudente / Capital Gazette)

GPS does offer several advantages over celestial navigation. For one thing, much greater accuracy, measured literally in single digits of feet. For another, it is continuously updating. Other navigational systems, such as inertial, start with a known fix, and then “drift” after that, with the error in position accumulating over time until the next opportunity to update from a known position.

But as the cited article notes, you can’t jam a sextant. Sorta. Cloud cover actually does a pretty good job of jamming a sextant.

Ordinarily, I’m not at all in favor of gold-plating a system. Here, I’ll make a bit of an exception.  While having midshipmen pick up a sextant and the sight reduction tables is the best way to learn, I think it would  be pretty silly for the XO or Navigator to stand on the bridge wing shooting Local Apparent Noon with a 100 year old design.

Why not field a modern gyro stabilized star/sun tracker? And of course,  an iPad app that you simply input the sightings into. Heck, you could have that capability built into the star tracker.

This is not some fantastic idea I just came up with. Did you know some early  ballistic missiles used celestial navigation, with automatic trackers? Day or night, once the missile got up high enough above any clouds and most of the atmosphere, the needed stars were always visible.

The Navy (and the Army to a certain extent) desperately needs to relearn how to operate in an Emission Controlled (EMCON) environment. That means not only using EMCON to deny the enemy information, but also retaining the ability to work when networked sensors are denied or degraded. As fast as we are increasing our capability to field better capabilities through networks, you can bet China and others are working to disrupt or exploit those networks.

9 thoughts on “The Stars are in our Future”

  1. Merchant Marine Deck Officers are still required to be able to navigate by stars and are tested rigorously on the subject. I don’t think the Coasties stopped requiring the subject for their middies.

    When I was in we had the Transit system as well as Omega. Omega was about as accurate, but Transit was more accurate than stars. The Navy still required us to shoot them at dawn, evening and shooting local apparent noon with two sun lines in the morning watch and two more in the afternoon watch. I never thought the requirement was burdensome at all. In fact we used to have contests to see who could get closest to the real position as determined by Transit fixes. It was a challenge all 3 of us liked.

  2. An automatic sun / star / moon tracking system should honest to [insert deity here] be about the easiest thing in the world to make. In fact, here’s Ref (A) for the solar tracker: Tie in a magnetic compass and a clock, then have a Raspberry Pi query some tables, and there you go. Star stuff would probably be a little more number crunching than a RaspPi could handle – you’d need a panoramic camera for that and some image processing, but again – not that difficult, just a little time consuming for the programming.

  3. I’m glad to see someone is thinking ahead. But I don’t think cyber attacks are the only concern. In a big blow-up, the EMP from a nuc detonated high in the atmosphere would fry most of our electronics. I rarely read about any plans to continue fighting when the electrical thingies stop working.

    1. Most military hardware is hardened against EMP. And of course, any nation advanced enough to make an EMP strike on us is similarly vulnerable to a counter EMP strike.

      Not saying it’s not a problem. But it’s not a course of action without its own risks.

    2. Were an EMP strike to take place, the country that did it, if we identified the responsible party, would have far worse to worry about than an EMP strike in return.

  4. The SR-71 had a day/night star tracker.

    An automated computerised astral navigation system is fine, but the training needs to be traditional to really comprehend what the computer is doing.

Comments are closed.