Introduction to Celestial Concepts

Celestial navigation is a universal aid to dead reckoning (DR). Because it is available worldwide and is independent of electronic equipment, it is a very reliable method of fixing the position of the aircraft. It cannot be jammed and emanates no signals. Each celestial observation yields one line of position (LOP). In the daytime, when the sun may be the only visible celestial body, a single LOP may be all you can get. At night, when numerous bodies are available, LOPs obtained observing two or more bodies may be crossed to determine a fix.

It is impossible to predict, in so many miles, the accuracy of a celestial fix. Celestial accuracy depends on the navigator’s skill, the type and condition of the equipment, and the weather. With the increase in aircraft speed and range, celestial navigation is very demanding. Fixes must be plotted and used as quickly as possible.


You do not have to be an astronomer or mathematician to establish a celestial LOP. Your ability to use a sextant is a matter of practice, and specially designed celestial tables have reduced the computations to simple arithmetic.

Although you do not need to understand astronomy in detail to establish an accurate celestial position, celestial work and celestial LOPs mean more if you understand the basics of celestial astronomy. Celestial astronomy includes the navigational bodies in the universe and their relative motions. Although there are an infinite number of heavenly bodies, celestial navigation utilizes only 63 of them: 57 stars, the moon, the sun, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn.


We make certain assumptions to simplify celestial navigation. These assumptions help you obtain accurate LOPs without a detailed knowledge of celestial astronomy. However, celestial positioning is more than extracting numbers from various books. A working knowledge of celestial concepts helps you crosscheck your computations.

First, assume the earth is a perfect sphere. That puts every point on the earth’s surface equidistant from the center, forming the terrestrial sphere. Next, assume the terrestrial sphere is the center of an infinite universe. Finally, assume all other bodies, except the moon, are an infinite distance from the terrestrial sphere. Imagine them on the inside surface of an enormous concentric sphere, the celestial sphere. If the stars, planets, and sun are infinitely distant from the earth’s center, then the earth’s surface (or aircraft’s altitude) is approximately the center of the universe.

Ptolemy proposed the celestial concept of the universe in AD 127. He said the earth is the center of the universe, and all bodies rotate about the earth from east to west. In the relatively short periods of time involved with celestial positioning, you can assume that all bodies on the celestial sphere rotate at the same rate. In actuality, over months or years, the planets move among the stars at varying rates.


Establishing an artificial celestial sphere with an infinite radius simplifies computations for three celestial spheres has a corresponding point on the terrestrial sphere and; conversely, every point on the terrestrial sphere has a corresponding point on the celestial sphere.

Second, the celestial sphere’s infinite radius dwarfs variations in the observer’s location. An infinite radius means all light rays from the celestial body arrive parallel, so the angle is the same whether viewed at the earth’s center, on the surface, or at the aircraft’s altitude.

Third, the relationships are valid for all bodies on the celestial sphere. Because the moon is relatively close to the earth, it must be treated differently. With certain corrections, the moon still provides an accurate LOP. This is addressed in a later category.

Figure 8-1. Celestial points and subpoints on earth have the same relationship.

Figure 8-1. Celestial points and subpoints on earth have the same relationship.

Because the celestial sphere and terrestrial sphere are concentric, each sphere contains an equator, two poles, meridians, and parallels of latitude or declination. The observer on earth has a corresponding point directly overhead on the celestial sphere called the zenith. A celestial body has a corresponding point on the terrestrial sphere directly below it called the subpoint or geographic position. At the subpoint, the light rays from the body are perpendicular to the earth’s surface. [Figures 8-1 and 8-2]

Figure 8-2. Elements of the celestial sphere.

Figure 8-2. Elements of the celestial sphere.

Consistent with the celestial assumptions, the earth and the celestial meridians do not rotate. All bodies on the celestial sphere rotate 15° per hour past the celestial meridians. The moon moves at approximately 14.5° per hour.

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