On Earth, North is determined by the magnetic poles of our planet. Is there such a thing as "North" in outerspace? To put it another way, is there any other way for astronauts to navigate besides starcharts? For instance, if an astronauts spaceship were to be placed somewhere (outside of our solar system) in the milkyway galaxy, would there be a way for them to orient themselves?
North is determined by the geographic poles of our planet, i.e., by the axis on which the planet rotates. There is such a thing as "magnetic north", determined by the poles of the Earth's magnetic field, but "north" by itself almost always refers to geographic north. (For one thing, both sets of poles move over time, but the geographic poles are much more stable.)
We do use magnetic compasses for navigation, but typically only when (a) the few degrees difference between magnetic north and "true" north doesn't matter or (b) when we know what the offset ("magnetic declination") is.
There are other possible meanings of "north", determined by whatever rotation axis happens to be relevant:
- The plane of the ecliptic, determined by the Earth's orbit around the Sun, defines a kind of "north", about 23.5° away from geographic north.
- If you're on or near another planet, "north" is typically determined by the rotational axis of that planet. Most of the planets in the Solar System have axes that are close to parallel to Earth's axis; Uranus is a notable exception, and Venus rotates in the opposite direction.
- The Galaxy itself rotates on an axis; if you're in deep interstellar space, you might use that as a frame of reference.
So far no astronauts have gone far enough out for most of this to be relevant. Unmanned spacecraft such as Voyager have gone to other planets, and their navigation is quite precise, but it doesn't necessarily depend on defining what "north" means; you just need a way of determining where you are and a consistent way of describing it.
Within our Galaxy, it should be possible to navigate by observing the positions of known stars.
It's not likely we'll be using magnetic fields as a primary source of navigation information in deep space. As long as you can see the stars, there are better sources of information.
On Earth the north and the south are defined by the south and north magnetic poles respectively of the Earth's Magnetic field. In space there is a thing called the Galactic Magnetic field which permeates galaxies, including the Milky Way (http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0207240). However, the strength of the Galactic magnetic field is much much lower than the Earth's magnetic field. Our compasses wont be able to detect this and be much more influenced by magnetic fields of nearby planets or stars, rather than the Galactic field. The Galactic magnetic field acts on much larger scales. In 1997 one scientist discovered that the supernova remnants (left overs of an exploded star) align them selves to Milky Way's magnetic field. Intergalactic magnetic fields have also been recently discovered but I believe little is known about their structure.
So in short, I think, theoretically there can be a "north" in space because there is a magnetic field present. Whether or not we can make use of it (due to its weak strength) is a different story. There are other coordinate systems that are used e.g the Galactic Coordinate system and Right ascension/declination.
Actually, North on the Earth is determined not by the Earth's magnetic field, but by the apparent motion of stars as the Earth rotates. Magnetic North is not toward the northern end of the spin axis of the Earth, in general.
There are easily identifiable distant galaxies, and pulsars, that can serve very well as navigational beacons for interstellar navigation and even for navigation outside our galaxy.
From some perspectives the 10 million year lifetime of a pulsar is too short. Navigation within our galaxy using pulsars as beacons would be a bit messy, since the EM radiation emission of a pulsar is in a cone that seems to be 6 to 15 degrees wide, whose axis itself sweeps in a cone as the pulsar rotates. That means a pulsar will typically be visible from at most about 10% of the sphere surrounding the pulsar. But it also means, because there are something like 1000 known pulsars within 2500 light years and the Milky Way is ~ 100,000 light years across, that there must be at least 1.6 million pulsars in our galaxy. Depending on where our galactic explorers are in the Milky Way, some pulsars would be visible and others would not be, but there should always be at least a few hundred pulsars visible from any point in or near our galaxy.
Edit 9/25/2019: Although pulsars and distant galaxies can serve as navigational beacons from which to triangulate position, pulsars offer an additional bonus: Measuring the relative phases of a set of pulsars whose period is in the millisecond range should be able to provide a GPS-like accuracy much better than one light-millisecond. The distance from the Earth to the Moon is around 1.3 light-seconds. One light-millisecond is just 186 miles.
there is no axis of rotation, and no plane of rotation, so there is neither longitude nor latitude; likewise, there is no North, south, east, or west. Navigation consists of knowing where Here is, in relation to There (as it does all forms of wayfinding). Thus, the Sun is a Prime $(x, y, z = 0)$, the plane of planetary rotation can be the equator; locus of Earth at time of departure can be the prime meridian. I posit these conditionally, for one may only need know $x^2+y^2+z^2=w^2$, being the Direction & Distance hence. This is merely triangulation in three dimensions.
Another method is similar to coastal navigation: the arc (angle) between any pair of stars, or a trio of stars, gives a fix; there are plenty of stars, seen from earth, that appear close together, yet are separated by a great distance; also using celestial coordinates in the same manner as Terrestrial astro-navigation, in order to reckon where Here is, in relation to Whence & Whither.
The value of North changes at different parts of the Earth. Imagine placing a stiff, flat sheet wherever you're standing.
You could parallel-translate that sheet, and its definition of North, to anywhere in outer space. But even on the Earth "North" isn't meaningful unless we know where you're standing.
So I would say yes—it's possible to talk about North in outer space, in the same way that it is on Earth. You just need to say "North relative to my uncle's house" or whatever, the same way you do here.
It probably wouldn't be a very useful direction, because the definition of "North relative to my uncle's house" would be moving along with the Earth, whereas I'm imagining you in a spaceship.
But let's say you were in a satellite orbiting the Earth, and kept looking down at your uncle's house. You could still use that reference point and it would be meaningful and, maybe a little useful.