Evolution of The Nautical Almanac & Celestial Navigation Today

  • Steven A. BellEmail author
  • John A. Bangert
  • George H. Kaplan
Part of the Historical & Cultural Astronomy book series (HCA)


Revolutionary and rapid advances in computing hardware and software beginning in the 1970s not only had a profound impact on how the traditional, printed almanacs were produced and distributed, but also on the basic concept of what constitutes an almanac. The wide availability of affordable personal computers and widespread access to the World Wide Web led to Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office (HMNAO) and the US Naval Observatory (USNO) providing these data in new forms. In addition ground-based radio navigation methods were replacing celestial navigation and eventually the Global Positioning System (GPS) led to significant reductions in the training for and use of celestial navigation.

The first section highlights the role of HMNAO and its difficulties in ensuring that The Nautical Almanac (NA) and The Astronomical Almanac (AsA) continued in a more commercial environment. At the same time the office was committed to developing new products, embracing new technology, as well as implementing new international standards, which required extensive changes in the methods of computation and presentation of information. The close cooperation between HMNAO and USNO is clearly illustrated. The second section highlights the work at USNO to develop new rigorous astronomical and navigational algorithms that exploited rapidly growing computing power, and software products and services that implemented these algorithms. As the vulnerabilities of GPS became apparent, USNO responded to renewed interest in teaching the practice of celestial navigation, and USNO staff worked with expert groups to develop online training. Additionally, USNO staff teamed with industry and others in the US Navy to pioneer development of an automated celestial navigation system for shipboard use.

Automated forms of celestial navigation were first developed in the 1950s for missile guidance and aircraft navigation. These so-called stellar-inertial systems combine a star tracker with an inertial navigation unit. The technology has advanced considerably to the point where these systems are now capable of determining a geographic position to within a few tens of meters. Increasing concerns in recent years about GPS as a single point of failure for critical US military operations have renewed interest in automated celestial observing systems as part of a multi-sensor approach to navigation. These topics are discussed in the last section.



The authors acknowledge all those who have helped with this chapter. In particular, Bell gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the staff of HMNAO both current and recently retired with the preparation of this material and its proofreading. Bangert is grateful to Drs. Paul Janiczek, George Kaplan, and Susan Stewart for providing background material used in this section, and for their valuable comments and suggestions on early versions of this section.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven A. Bell
    • 1
    Email author
  • John A. Bangert
    • 2
  • George H. Kaplan
    • 3
  1. 1.UK Hydrographic Office(Head, HM Nautical Almanac Office)TauntonUK
  2. 2.US Naval Observatory (Retired/Head, Astronomical Applications Department)Washington, DCUSA
  3. 3.US Naval Observatory (contractor)Washington, DCUSA

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