A sextant is an instrument used to measure the angle between any two visible objects. Its primary use is to determine the angle between a celestial object and the horizon which is known as the altitude. Making this measurement is known as sighting the object, shooting the object, or taking a sight and it is an essential part of celestial navigation. The angle, and the time when it was measured, can be used to calculate a position line on a nautical or aeronautical chart. A common use of the sextant is to sight the sun at solar noon and to measure the elevation (altitude) angle at night from the horizon plane to Polaris to find one's latitude (in northern latitudes). Since the sextant can be used to measure the angle between any two objects, it can be held horizontally to measure the angle between any two landmarks which will allow for calculation of a position on a chart. A sextant can also be used to measure the Lunar distance between the moon and another celestial object (e.g., star, planet) in order to determine Greenwich time which is important because it can then be used to determine the longitude. The scale of a sextant has a length of 1/6 turn (60°); hence the sextant's name (sextāns, -antis is the Latin word for "one sixth", "εξάντας" in Greek). An octant is a similar device with a shorter scale (⅛ turn, or 45°), whereas a quintant (1/5 turn, or 72°) and a quadrant (¼ turn, or 90°) have longer scales. Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) invented the principle of the doubly reflecting navigation instrument (a reflecting quadrant - see Octant (instrument)), but never published it. Two men independently developed the octant around 1730: John Hadley (1682–1744), an English mathematician, and Thomas Godfrey (1704–1749), a glazier in Philadelphia. John Bird made the first sextant in 1757. The octant and later the sextant, replaced the Davis quadrant as the main instrument for navigation.
This section discusses navigators' sextants. Most of what is said about these specific sextants applies equally to other types of sextants. Navigators' sextants were primarily used for celestial navigation.
Like the Davis quadrant (also called backstaff), the sextant allows celestial objects to be measured relative to the horizon, rather than relative to the instrument. This allows excellent precision. However, unlike the backstaff, the sextant allows direct observations of stars. This permits the use of the sextant at night when a backstaff is difficult to use. For solar observations, filters allow direct observation of the sun. Since the measurement is relative to the horizon, the measuring pointer is a beam of light that reaches to the horizon. The measurement is thus limited by the angular accuracy of the instrument and not the sine error of the length of an alidade, as it is in a mariner's astrolabe or similar older instrument. A sextant does not require a completely steady aim, because it measures a relative angle. For example, when a sextant is used on a moving ship, the image of both horizon and celestial object will move around in the field of view. However, the relative position of the two images will remain steady, and as long as the user can determine when the celestial object touches the horizon the accuracy of the measurement will remain high compared to the magnitude of the movement. The sextant is not dependent upon electricity (unlike many forms of modern navigation) or anything human-controlled (like GPS satellites). For these reasons, it is considered an eminently practical back-up navigation tool for ships.
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