Posted by Nicole Grant at 10/04/2021 09:56:09
‘Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning…’
Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, 1953
The 12th of April marks the anniversary of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human into space in 1961, as well as the first flight of the space shuttle program 20 years later in 1981. Perhaps no surprise then it has been recognised as the International Day of Human Space Flight and although Poole Museum doesn’t have anything in its collection related to space exploration (a terrible oversight!) it does have a range of objects where examining the Sun, Moon and stars was vitally important.
This beautiful ebony and brass instrument is an Octant and, together with tools like the Mariners Astrolabe and its more famous sibling the Sextant, they allowed for significant leaps forward in the practise of celestial navigation. By observing and measuring the distance between celestial bodies, such as the Sun, Moon, planets or stars, and the visible horizon mariners could fix their position on the Earth and work out where they were.
Seafarers had been using the position of certain stars in navigation since antiquity but the development of instruments like the octant in early 18th century made the process much more accurate and by the late 18th century they would have been the dominant form of navigational instrument on the high seas. This example was made by a firm called Crichton of London and we believe belonged to a master mariner from Bournemouth.
On his famous Vostok 1 flight Gagarin wouldn’t have to do any navigation himself, everything was controlled from the ground our automatically, he wasn’t even supposed to touch the controls without permission! Many later missions, though, including the Apollo lunar programme were still using a form of celestial navigation to help set their course to the moon and computerised star trackers are still used today to work out the orientation of spacecraft based on the position of stars around them.
P.S. Bonus points if anyone knows the names of all 58 stars given special status for celestial navigation!