Compass - Types of Compasses

Types of Compasses

There are two widely used and radically different types of compass. The magnetic compass contains a magnet that interacts with the earth's magnetic field and aligns itself to point to the magnetic poles. Simple compasses of this type show directions in a frame of reference in which the directions of the magnetic poles are due north and south. These directions are called magnetic north and magnetic south. The gyro compass (sometimes spelled with a hyphen, or as one word) contains a rapidly spinning wheel whose rotation interacts dynamically with the rotation of the earth so as to make the wheel precess, losing energy to friction until its axis of rotation is parallel with the earth's. The wheel's axis therefore points to the earth's rotational poles, and a frame of reference is used in which the directions of the rotational poles are due north and south. These directions are called true north and true south, respectively. The astrocompass works by observing the direction of stars and other celestial bodies.

There are other devices which are not conventionally called compasses but which do allow the true cardinal directions to be determined. Some GPS receivers have two or three antennas, fixed some distance apart to the structure of a vehicle, usually an aircraft or ship. The exact latitudes and longitudes of the antennas can be determined simultaneously, which allows the directions of the cardinal points to be calculated relative to the heading of the aircraft (the direction in which its nose is pointing), rather than to its direction of movement, which will be different if there is a crosswind. They are said to work "like a compass", or "as a compass".

Even a simple GPS can be used as compass, since if the receiver is being moved, even at walking pace, it can follow the change of its position, and hence determine the compass bearing of its direction of movement, and thence the directions of the cardinal points relative to its direction of movement. A much older example was the Chinese south-pointing chariot, which worked like a compass by directional dead reckoning. It was initialized by hand, possibly using astronomical observations e.g. of the Pole Star, and thenceforth counteracted every turn that was made to keep its pointer aiming in the desired direction, usually to the south. Watches and sundials can also be used to find compass directions. See their articles for details.

A recent development is the electronic compass which detects the direction without potentially fallible moving parts. This may use a fibre optic gyrocompass or a magnetometer. The magnetometer frequently appears as an optional subsystem built into hand-held GPS receivers and mobile phones. However, magnetic compasses remain popular, especially in remote areas, as they are relatively inexpensive, durable, and require no power supply.

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