Naval Academy brings back celestial navigation courses

July 18, 2016  - By
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Sextant-PD-300Imagine life without GPS. For those of us old enough, that might not be hard to do. For younger people, it’s almost unimaginable. Now imagine that GPS — for whatever reason — is suddenly unavailable. What if you’re not on land, where printed maps are filled with landmarks? What else do you rely on?

Before GPS, early explorers navigated by the stars using celestial navigation and a sextant, the same basic techniques that guided ancient Polynesians in the open Pacific and Magellan around the world (the first sextant device was invented in 1757 by John Bird).

As Don Jewell describes in his gripping Defense PNT newsletter column “Lost Over the Pacific,” a massive electrical failure on his aircraft caused the crew to rely on his skills navigating with a sextant. “The crew regarded me with some skepticism as they realized I intended to use an old-fashioned sextant to determine the speed and heading and then navigate a multi-hundred-million-dollar modern reconnaissance aircraft,” he recalls.

Despite its usefulness when things go sideways, celestial navigation was pulled from the curriculum at the U.S. Naval Academy in the late 1990s, considered “outdated.” The course time was replaced with GPS and electronic navigation. Among the fleet, the Navy ended training in celestial navigation in 2006. A similar course at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy ended 10 years ago, but some instruction remains in theories of celestial navigation, and cadets use a sextant aboard the tall ship Eagle.

Now, however, what’s old is new again. The Naval Academy has brought back celestial navigation courses, recognizing the importance of giving future naval officers the ability to find their position out at sea in case GPS is unavailable through jamming or hacking.

After all, an old-fashioned sextant can’t be hacked.

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Joelle Harms is the digital media manager for GPS World. Harms completed her undergraduate degree at Ohio University where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and creative writing specialization from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She specifically creates content for GPS World and Geospatial Solutions digital properties including newsletters, videos, social media and websites.

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