Skip to main content

The Astrolabe: How to Make One and Understanding Its Use

I worked for many years as a science teacher in Toronto, Ontario, and am a science enthusiast and online writer.

What Is an Astrolabe?

The mariner's astrolabe was developed over two thousand years ago. It was an instrument of navigation used to measure celestial altitude. Celestial altitude is the relative 'height' of a star, planet, or other celestial object above the horizon. Why would "celestial altitude" be important to ancient mariners? Ancient navigators could not measure longitude. However, it was quite easy to determine latitude. Geographic latitude, or distance from the equator, therefore, was very important to sailors, and determining celestial altitude was the means by which geographic latitude could be estimated.

Ancient mariners used the following method to determine their latitude at sea:

  1. The noon altitude of the sun was measured during the day, or
  2. the altitude of a star of known declination was measured when it was on the meridian (due north or south) at night.
  3. Using an almanac, the Sun's or star's declination for the date was determined.
  4. The following formula was then used: Latitude = 90° - measured altitude + declination.

Φ Declination is like latitude. It tells a navigator how far a star is from the celestial equator.

History of the Mariner's Astrolabe

Classical Greece was the birthplace of the astrolabe. A number of developments in math and astronomy provided the tools necessary for its development.

  • 225 B.C.: Apollonius, a mathemetician known for developments in geometry, probably studied the astrolabe projection.
  • 160 B.C.: Hipparchus working in Rhodes, determined the precession of equinoxes, made developments in trigonometry, and fine-tuned projection as a way of solving astronomical problems.
  • 88 B.C.: Marcus Vitruvius Pollio describes a device using stereographic projection in a machine, an anaphoric clock
  • 150 A.D.: Claudius Ptolelmy hints in his writings of an instrument he possessed which may have operated as an astrolabe.

It is unknown when the application of stereographic projection ( a way of picturing a sphere on a plane) was modified into the astrolabe.

  • 390 A.D.: It is said that Synesiius of Cyrene had an instrument constructed that was a type of astrolabe.
  • 6th Century A.D.: John Philoponos of Alexandria provides the earliest descriptions of actual astrolabes.
  • 7th Century A.D.: It has been definitely documented that astrolabes existed by this century.
  • Mid-8th Century: The Islamic world was introduced to the astrolabe, where the astrolabe was fully developed. Because the astrolabe could be used to determine astronomically determined prayer times, and it could also be used to find direction to Mecca, the astrolabe was extremely valuable to Islamic society. In addition, astrology was a rich part of ancient Islamic culture, and the early use of the astrolabe was principally in astrology.
  • 11th Century: Astrolabe technology spread from Islam through North Africa into Spain, whereupon Europe cultures gained access to the technology through Christian monasteries in northern Spain.
  • 13th and 14th Centuries: European usage of the astrolabe became widespread.
  • 15th and 16th Centuries: The astrolabe became one of the basic tools of astronomical education.
  • Mid-17th Century: The use of the astrolabe declined due to the development of more specialized and accurate scientific devices, including the telescope.
  • 19th Century: Astrolabe production, especially in the early part of this century, continued mainly in the Arab world.

The astrolabe was instrumental in the development and history of astronomy.

  • Astronomers used it to measure the positions of stars and planets.
  • They kept track of eclipses.
  • Ancient astronomers using astrolabes developed terminology, measurements, and techniques, which became the foundation of later astronomical knowledge.

How to Make an Astrolabe

Materials Required:

  • plastic protractor
  • large plastic straw
  • 12-inch piece of string
  • a small bolt or washer (or other metal weight that can be tied to a string)
  • clear tape

How to Make the Astrolabe:

  1. Tie one end of the string to the hole in the middle, flat-edged side of the protractor. If there is not a hole, carefully drill one.
  2. Attach the metal weight to the other end of the string.
  3. Tape the straw to the flat edge of the protractor.

Finding Polaris

  1. Looking North, find the Big Dipper. It looks like a large spoon or wheelbarrow and is the easiest constellation to find.
  2. The Big Dipper is composed of seven stars. Locate the two that form the outer edge of the 'spoon' Connect these front stars of the Big Dipper and continue this line off to the upper right. The first bright star you come to is Polaris, the North Star.
  3. If you are still having trouble locating Polaris see the following link for clarification: How To Find Polaris the North Star.

How to Determine Your Latitude Using the Astrolabe

  1. Locate the star Polaris at night.
  2. Sight the star through the straw.
  3. Note what degree the string lines up at on the protractor using the set of numbers from 0-90 degrees. This number is the zenith angle.
  4. To find the altitude angle: 90° - zenith angle. This number will be equal to or very close to your sighting location.

How to Determine the Height of an Object Using Your Astrolabe With and Without Trigonometry

Without Trigonometry:

  1. Walk away from your object to be measured until your view through the sight vane shows a 45° measurement on the astrolabe.
  2. Measure the height of the astrolabe above the ground.
  3. Measure the distance to the base of the object.
  4. Height of the object = height of astrolabe above the ground + distance to the base of the object.

With Trigonometry: (used it you can't get far enough away from the object to line up the sight vane)

  • A “right triangle” has two sides that meet at a 90° angle.
  • The side of the triangle opposite the 90° angle is the hypotenuse.
  • The tangent of one of the other angles is defined as the length of the side opposite the angle divided by the side closest to the angle (not the hypotenuse).

Using the diagram to the right, I will illustrate determining the height of an object using your astrolabe and the principles of trigonometry:

  1. The height of the tree is side T plus 5 feet. The 5 feet measurement is the measurement of the height of your eyeball above the ground.
  2. The tangent of angle determined by using your astrolabe to sight the top of the tree, in this case, 38°, is equal to side T divided by 20 feet (the adjacent angle).
  3. Then, Tan 38° = T/20 feet
  4. Using a scientific calculator, Tan 38° is found to be 0.78. So,
  5. 0.78 = T/20 feet; therefore,
  6. T = 0.78 x 20 feet; therefore, T = 15.6 feet
  7. The height of the tree equals T plus the height of your eyeball above the ground.
  8. Therefore, tree height = 15.6 feet + 5 feet. The tree is, thus, 20.6 feet.

Works Cited


freya on January 19, 2020:

what on earth is it used for?

You need to answer this question!

jasem hammod on August 06, 2019:

A wonderful subject, I am a Master student at the Institute of Arab Scientific Heritage (Syria, Aleppo), you can send the article to my e-mail

MEHNAMEBOB on March 13, 2018:


Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 22, 2012:

Hey CC, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Glad you learned something new. Thanks for the positive vote!

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on July 21, 2012:

Wow, great hub idea! I had never even heard of astrolabes, sadly. This is a wonderful project for kids of all ages. Voted awesome, up, and interesting!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 21, 2012:

Thanks so much Brittany. So glad you've had the experience of using one. They are very cool instruments. Take care!

Brittany Kennedy from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on July 21, 2012:

Oo, I love this hub! I made one a while back and remember how cool it was to locate the different stars. Thanks for bringing me back with your excellent explanation and beautiful pictures. Mahalo.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 18, 2012:

Thanks Cyndi. You had to love math to be an ancient mariner I guess. Glad you liked the hub and that you've actually made one in the past. It was neat to see my kids using it and even more impressive that it gave fairly accurate results! Thanks for the feedback!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on July 18, 2012:

This hub takes me back to 8th grade when I made an astrolabe for my science unit on space. I didn't know that mariners used them, though, to help determine their latitude! Cool! I admit, that's a lot of research and math to determine where you are. Whoa! At least it could be done, though. Great job on this hub! :)

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 08, 2012:

Good luck CS but make sure to use as big a diameter of straw as you can find. It is easier to see through at night to find Polaris!

Sarah Johnson from Charleston, South Carolina on July 07, 2012:

We might try it then since mine are now 5th and 6th graders. Thanks!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 07, 2012:

Thanks aviannovice, I'm so glad you enjoyed the hub.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 07, 2012:

My son in grade 7 understood the concepts well. I'm thinking grade 5 and up would be able to handle the math end. Making one was very easy. It has been the easiest of my gadget projects yet!

Sarah Johnson from Charleston, South Carolina on July 07, 2012:

Very interesting and cool hub, Teresa. To make and use the astrolabe, what age range do you suggest for kids? I am wondering if mine are too young, or if I am just afraid of the math myself!

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on July 07, 2012:

You know Teresa, this seems to have been one of the most useful tools over the centuries. Great job.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 05, 2012:

Thanks Cara. I so impressed it worked so accurately when I tried it. And it was super easy to make. Glad you enjoyed it!!!

cardelean from Michigan on July 05, 2012:

What a cool hub! I learned so much from this and am so impressed with that super cool activity to make your own astrolabe! I can't wait until my kids are just a bit older to give this a try with them.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on July 05, 2012:

Thank you so much for the kind words Redberry Sky. I'm glad you found the instructions straight forward. Good luck to you and your niece with your astrolabe. Use as large a straw as you can find as seeing out of smaller apparatuses becomes more difficult in dim light or darkness!

Redberry Sky on July 05, 2012:

I remember learning the basics of this in school as part of a project, but the explanation and help we were given was nowhere near as comprehensive and interesting as this. Fascinating history, and very clear instructions. As soon as we get a clear night I'm going to try making one of these with my niece. Cheers Theresa :)