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Left is Right and Right is Left – a simple users guide to PA

PA” – you see those letters frequently on this web site and in various books and catalogs of double stars. They stand for “position angle” and position angle is one of the most fundamental tools in the double star observer’s tool belt. It tells us what direction to look for what frequently is a star’s faint and almost-too-close-for-splitting companion. Knowing the PA also can give you assurance that the starry companion you think you have found is really the correct one. But directions in the sky can be different than directions on Earth and different telescopes flip things around differently and this all tends to overwhelm someone trying to get a handle on it for the first time – or second!

Don’t let it. It is all very simple. The key is to break the problem into two bite-sized chunks –  first make sure you understand directions in the sky as you see them with the naked eye – then tackle what the telescope does to these.

Two Rules

The source of all the confusion is that stars move in circles around the celestial poles – not straight lines – and the circles get smaller as you approach the poles. This is different from the apparently flat, common sense world we walk around on each day. So here are two new rules to apply to help you get things right in the stellar environment.

1. Whatever direction the stars appear to move, that is west.

2. The direction from a star to Polaris is north.

Notice that these are new definitions. We are not talking about the cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west – as they appear on the horizon, though these are closely related. These sky directions are a bit different because we are looking at a sphere from the inside – the dome of the sky. They are absolutely essential, however, for talking intelligently and usefully about where things are in the sky in relation to one another. Terms such as “above” and “below” are relative and not always that helpful when trying to find your way around the sky dome. Nor is it helpful to relate what you see in the eyepiece to a clock face.  Instead, learn to think in terms of the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west.

So face south and look up. This puts east to your left and west to your right. Hey that was easy!

Yes it was. Now face north. East is now to your right and west to your left. Wow – there’s nothing to this!

Nope. Nothing to it – until you look at the section of sky beneath the North Star. Now east and west get flipped. Now – in the sky – west is to your right and east to your left! Remember – this is the special case that applies only to objects that are below the North Star. This chart should help you understand why.Notice the stars appear to move from left to right, down to up, right to left, and then up to down as they circle the pole – and all these directions are the same – they are all west.

West is always the direction the stars appear to move as theyc ircle the north celestial pole, marked approximately by the North Star. (Click image to see a much larger version.)
West is always the direction the stars appear to move as they circle the north celestial pole, marked approximately by the North Star. (Click image to see a much larger version.)

Why the change in direction? Nothing has changed really. Remember Rule 1: The star always appear to rotate to the west. Since they appear to circle the North Star – the North Celestial Pole really – then beneath it they will appear to move from left (east) to right (west.) It is confusing because the western point of the horizon is still to your left – but you are not dealing with the horizon – you are now dealing with the sky dome.

Now lets look at the second rule. It applies everywhere in the sky, no matter what direction you face. North is always toward the North Star. We’ll illustrate this by looking north.

North is always towards the north celestial pole, marked approximately by the North Star, Polaris.
North is always towards the north celestial pole, marked approximately by the North Star, Polaris. (Click image to see a much larger version.)

Second bite – the telescope

Digested the directions as seen with the naked eye? Feel confident you know west from east? Good. Now let’s see what the telescope does to this. Look at the sky and make sure you know which way is west.

Once you have determined west, there are two simple rules that apply depending on the type of telescope you are using.

3. If you are using a telescope with a diagonal mirror (refractor, SCT, or Maksutov), then the other directions are read clockwise from west – north,east, south.

4. If you are using a Newtonian reflector, whether on a Dobsonian mount or equatorial, then the other directions are read counterclockwise from west – north, east, south.

Got it? Diagonal – clockwise. Reflector – counterclockwise. Not too big a bite.

Now it’s easy, with some telescopes, to forget about the naked eye view and directions and determine west by simply looking in the eyepiece. If you are using a manual telescope – or one with a simple clock drive that tracks the stars, this is easy. Turn off the tracking motor if you are using one. Now when you look in the eyepiece you will notice in just a few seconds that the stars are drifting through it. The direction they are drifting is west. Depending on where and when you are looking the stars may leave your field of view at any point in a 360 degree circle. But place a star near the center of your field of view and follow its drift to the exit point. Wherever that exit point is, that is west. So we are simply applying  Rule 1 above to the telescope view. Now use either Rule 3 or Rule 4 , depending on what type of telescope you are using, to determine the other directions.

But the PA is a number?

Yes, and you are probably familiar with these numbers. They frequently appear on a compass. They are used to determine “azimuth” on land. And they are simply the 360 degrees of a circle. All you have to remember is that they start with “0” as north and progress clockwise around the circle, so that 90 marks due east, 180 due south, 270 due west. I suggest you make one or more simple discs – let’s call then “training wheels” –  for your telescope and slip your eyepiece through them before loading it into the telescope so they serve as a memory jogger. Soon you will find you don’t need them, but they should help at first.

Prototype of one of the training wheels on my Unitron 60mm refractor - what, a square wheel? Sure!

This wheel implements Rule 3.

Click image to get a correct size disc suitable for printing.

And this wheel implements Rule 4.

Click image to get a correct size disc suitable for printing.

Put it to the test – right here and now!

Want to see this in action? Here’s a simulation prepared using Starry Nights Pro software and looking at the famous double, Albireo. It’s fairly low in the northwest at this time of year (December)  as I write this and here’s how it would appear in the early evening now in a refractor/SCT’/Mak telescope that uses a diagonal mirror. Be patient – follow the drift. This is a real time video simulation, but I made the field of view just 6-arc-minutes in diameter so it should go quite quickly. (The stars and their split are not to scale, but the PA and drift are correct.)

From watching this you should be able to deduce that West is in the direction marked on this still image.

Now remember, we are using a telescope with a diagonal mirror, so we need to apply Rule 3  – that is, North is clockwise from West. (Mentally lay the first training wheel on top of this.) So when we look at Albireo and its companion, we should see in our mind’s eye something that looks like this.

Can you estimate the PA of Albireo? Take a look before reading the next paragraph. Make an estimate.  You don’t have to be right on – just in the ball park.

OK – the PA of Albireo’s companion is 55°! Were you near that? Within ten or fifteen degrees?  That’s all I hope for and all I find useful most of the time.  We’re not trying to make scientific measurements for the record here. We just want to know where we should look for the secondary star. Or, we want to confirm our observation. I frequently make a quick sketch at the eyepiece, always indicating “west” on it. Then I look up the PA to make sure I have the right star. When we check close double it’s not unusual to be fooled, especially in poor seeing. Sometimes you just aren’t sure, but you think you have it right. So in many instance I make it a point not to remember the PA when I’m deciding what double to look at – then I check my notes against the published figures. It’s always fun to know you have it right.

But wait – I have a GOTO Scope!

Oops – sorry. This is an instance where the technology can tend to get in the way a tad. You can, of course, turn the “goto” off and the stars will drift and you can determine direction as above. But that will be a pain when you have to start up again. You certainly don’t want to be on a double star, then have to shut down and go through all that alignment stuff and find the star again just to determine PA. But don’t despair, just do this.

  • Use Rule 1 above to determine with your naked eye which way is west – which way the stars, Sun, Moon, and Planets all seem to be moving.
  • Now remember that your telescope – either type – flips left and right.  People tend to forget this and assume that the telescope flips east and west.  Not always. It flips the horizontal axis and whether thatis east-to-west or north-to-south depends on which way you are facing. So the trick is  to know whether left-to-right represents east/west or north/south.

Pause and think. A double star you want to observe is rising in the east. If it’s pretty close to the horizon – say within 30 degrees – then north is basically to your left, east is down, and west is up. So in this case it is north and south that are left and right – so they get swapped in the eyepiece.

If you’re looking south,  east and west get swapped.

This leads to a general rule – if you’re looking either north or south, east and west get swapped. If you’re looking east or west, then north and south get swapped. Remember, the goal is to identify “west” in your eyepiece. Then you can use the appropriate training wheel – or choose from rule 3 or 4 depending on the type of telescope you’re using.

11 Responses

  1. Thanks Greg-an excellent and very timely tutorial for me and anyone else who is a ” rabbit ” in this eyeopening pursuit. Hope to put it into practice as soon as the skies allow. regards, rich.

  2. […] It is simple to find and not a difficult split. To find look for the second star up from Reglus in the sickle of Leo.  I know I have the right star when I look in the finder or low power eyepiece because 40 Leonis, a 5th magnitude star, is less than half a degree south of Algieba at about PA 189°.  And since the PA for the secondary is 127° this give you a rough guide as to where to look for it. (But if sky directions and position angles confuse you, see this post.) […]

  3. Uhhmmm, now I am totally confused! The N-S E-W thing. Most of my Dob viewing is S to W, sometimes I turn N, I do not have access to E. I have used the drift to west idea fine. But when I am looking in my eyepiece, having determined the E-W drift, polaris is in the sky on my physical right,… ah got it– so it’s on my left in the eyepiece, right? (DOH, just figured that whilst typing, having spent ages ‘thinking’ and visualizing!).
    Thank you very much. It really is a very good article , the video is especially helpful for those just starting- and I like the training wheel idea. I will prob use it to keep a double check on myself, now I have finally got oriented right!
    (Up until now I have E and W marked on my sketches but have left off N!)

  4. You got it, Sue – it’s an application of rule 4. If you were looking west, then in your DOB stars would tend to drift upward. So apply rule 4 –

    4. If you are using a Newtonian reflector, whether on a Dobsonian mount or equatorial, then the other directions are read counterclockwise from west – north, east, south.

    That would put north to your left. The same conclusion you reached on your own – I love it when people answer their own questions ;-(

  5. Greg

    I have to tell you ,there has never been anyone more confused about what direction to move my scope then me!!! I gave up trying to determine the positional angle of double stars years ago,Your article is excellant ,finally I can find my way around with confidence,you have brought joy to searching for double stars replacing the frustration I use to operate with.

    Thank you Sir,


  6. This truly is an excellent article. I wish that the author of the Astronomical League 100 Double Star List had at least given this as a link. I had been asking friends in the hobby for help with position angles. Every one just gave me a clueless expression, even those who had taught astronomy courses. For many of the stars in this list, what I saw just did not match the listed position angles. Then once I began to figure out what was happening, I started running into circumpolar stars, and I knew the rules were different here. Thanks again. I think you just saved my sanity. Danny

    • You’re more than welcome, Danny!

      Greg wrote that article and saved my sanity, too. I was confused more than once by what goes on in the circumpolar area until he explained it to me.

      It’s kind of like the Bermuda Triangle until you figure out it’s actually totally logical.


  7. Great stuff Greg . Not many people write about this .
    mike hyrczyk

  8. Great stuff Greg . Not many people write about this .
    mike hyrczyk

  9. Thank you for your explanation of the view direction in the different telescopes. I will make use of your “direction wheel”, as I am going to start the Astronomical League’s Double Star program.

    When determining direction, would it work to use a compass to determine the direction of view and then set that direction at the bottom of your “direction wheel”? (This in lieu of the drift method for “W”.)

    • I’ll answer my own question. No, the terrestrial compass will not help. As has been said we are dealing with the sky dome and as we get closer to North it gets messier. Locating the W drift seems to be the only way. Harv Meyers

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