Tag Archives: azimuth

Every little star in the sky

An azimuth compass shows 360° starting with 0/360°at due North.

Who wants to talk about Ptolemy some more? I told you about how people back then thought Earth was at the center of the universe and all the stars and planets revolve around her. This is called the geocentric model. The geocentric model has the stars on a humongous sphere. Good ol’ Ptolemy calculated the positions of all the stars and planets in the sky. He mapped exactly their azimuth and altitude.

Imagine you’re standing outside on a clear night and can see all the way to the edge of the sky—no trees or buildings in the way. That’s Earth’s horizon (we usually don’t see the horizon unless we’re in a flat desert or a big lake or ocean). You’re standing in the middle of a big circle, the base of a big dome. Directly above your head is the zenith, the center of the dome above. You can use a compass to find the direction of a star’s position—that’s its azimuth.

Using a cross-staff to find a star’s altitude.

You’ll need another device to figure how high that star is from the horizon—you work out the angle with your eyeball being the center point, the horizon at zero and the zenith at 90 degrees. A cross-staff is something Ptolemy may have used. You sight along the staff and point it in the star’s direction. Move the crossbar until it touches the horizon at the bottom and the star at the top. The position of the crossbar on the staff marks the angle of the star’s altitude.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space