Skywatcher: Measuring Time and Direction



Calendars and clocks, the essence of time measurement, began with man first looking up to the heavens and discovering patterns, daily and seasonal. Located within the Milky Way’s Galaxy, our location, the third planet, can enlighten skywatchers to the universe’s movements.  Following all the other heavenly observers, you, too, can measure time and direction using a long-proven, scientific approach. 

False Dawn

Rising before dawn may be a rare experience, but a worthwhile one. In fall, late September through October, on mornings free of light pollution and the moon’s light, look east for a softly glowing triangle. The zodiacal light reflects from the dust in the solar system, appearing in varying bright colors of blue-purple near the horizon.  

What is an Analemma?

Ready to chase the sun across one year? Yes, all it takes is a room with a south-facing window, a mirror attached to a windowsill, and post-it notes.  On the first day, place the sticky paper on the wall where the reflection hits.  Don’t forget to mark the date.  Each week at the same time of day, including the time changes of daylight savings, place a post-it on the wall. At the end of the year, you’ll have a shape termed an “analemma.” 

A Likely Guide, the Sun 

Without a compass, you can use a stick’s shadow, aptly named “The Shadow-Tip Method,” to find true North or any other direction.  Ensure the object is well-lodged into the ground and vertical, clearing debris to ensure a visible shadow.  Mark the first line with a stone; then, wait roughly 15 minutes to assess a second position with another marker. Draw a line from point A to B and extend it about a foot past the second placement.  Stand with your left foot at the first rock and look towards North. (Remember, the sun rises in the east, setting in the west.  The shadow tip moves in just the opposite direction; therefore, the first shadow tip faces west, while the second marks east.) 

Tip:  Use the “Shadow-Tip Method” to determine the hour of the day! 

Time the Sunset 

Ever wonder what time the sun will set? You have the answer by using your hand.  With your elbow straight, hold your hand at arm’s length, turning your hand to view all fingers.  Begin by lining the top of the index finger with the bottom border of the sun. Next, count the finger widths until reaching the horizon.  Since each finger width represents 15 minutes, multiply to determine the hour of sunset.  (Example, eight fingers equals two hours.) 

Measuring Degrees of Separation 

The Celestial Sphere is 360 degrees.   Within the circle, arc-minutes divide the sphere into 60 degrees, as in the minutes of a clock.  Standing, the spaces above and below you comprise 180 degrees and form the center of the universe.  To identify smaller distances, consider learning a unique skill great for adults and children: 

Extend your hand at arm’s length, elbow straight, and palm facing outward.  

  • The width of the pinky finger represents one degree wide. 
  • The three middle fingers cover five degrees. 
  • A fist equals ten degrees.  (The Big Dipper measures three fists in width.) 
  • The span between the index and pinky finger is 15 degrees. 
  • The distance between the thumb and pinky finger is 25 degrees. 

 Tip:  Apply the skill to a game, such as finding the constellations or scouting; remember to account for varying hand sizes. 

The Star Clock 

Whether by land or by sea, adventurers and seamen followed the stars’ path as a directional beacon.  Skywatchers used the North Star (the brightest point of the Little Dipper), Polaris (a star in the Big Dipper,) or the “W” (of Cassiopeia) to find their way.  Consider designing or printing a moveable two-piece dial to determine the current hour. Users will become experts in finding the Big Dipper’s position with the aid of the star clock!  

Gravity and the Moon 

Looking up includes tracking our nearest satellite.  Did you know the moon’s gravity tugs at the Earth, pulling on the tides, extracting moisture from the Earth, and encouraging a term coined, “the lunacy connection?” The value in decoding the moon’s phases is to help present the truth of this phenomenon. 

Fact: Start sowing seeds when the moisture in the earth has been drawn near the surface at the new moon.  

FactQuarter moons only require one to three-quarters rotation around the Earth. 

Fact: The illuminating light of a full moon influences sleep patterns and results in unusual behaviors!

Keep searching for answers skyward! 


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