outer space mapping


I never put much thought into outer space in general because it seemed impractical and even irrelevant to me. But everything that I see and know about outer space comes from some sort of picture or drawing that is put into some sort of map for scale. They’re put into maps to show their relative sizes and distances because these scientifically noted numbers are literally too astronomical to be understood. So let’s get to it.

  • What is an Outer Space Map
  • History of Outer Space Maps
  • Modern Space Mapping Technology

What is an Outer Space Map

What distinguishes outer space maps from earth bound maps is that outer space maps are made from void to data collected, but not necessarily experienced information. Stylistically, both maps are fundamental in what you’re trying to convey is the concept of a place to someone who may have never been there before. So I guess that’s a pretty lucky start! Outer space maps are extra powerful because basically 99.99% of people who are viewing the map have never been– perhaps even the cartographer hasn’t been there! But the cartographer in this case has a special responsibility because no one has experienced this before that their map is what people will internalise as their perception of space. An outer space map is a powerful tool that mathematically translates data gathered by satellites into visual pieces.

There are a couple different types of outer space mapping that will be reviewed. Star Charts are astronomical maps that focus on what aspects of space can be seen from earth, and then cultural perspectives influence the meaning of the stars relationship to another. Specifically, star groupings and constellations tell the readers how nature diff

 History of Outer Space Maps

Source (left): “Divine Sky” from University of Michigan.

Source (right): “Star Maps” from University of Maine, Farmington.

The two above maps are how outer space has been mapped historically.  The left map is drawn by French Astronomer Philippe de La Hire and the right map is from c. 700 AD. These maps are more colloquially star charts, showing the spatial relationship of constellations in the sky.

Greek philosophers are arguably the most infamous astronomical mappers. Their contributions to math, technology and astronomy have been critical to the development of our mapping, and then in turn, our understanding of outer space. You can find a huge series of maps and mathematical analysis (especially look into the invention of trigonometry if you’re interested!). Most people are probably more comfortable with Astrology more than Astronomy, so maybe this does interest you more. But keep a keen eye when looking at the maps: what colours are being used? what’s on the borders? what figures are being portrayed as good? as evil? is there a hierarchy? why were these created? who used them?

Modern Space Mapping Technology

Disclaimer: I’m not going to explain how space mapping technology functions mechanically because that is beyond my scope, but I’ll give you a basic framework of the steps to mapping space.

There’s this a wizard of a man by the name of John Bandler. His space mapping is an optimisation strategy. This happens by running a coarse model over a fine model. Depending on your results, you are to adjust your coarse model to be closer to where you want to be. This is a strategy of optimisation. But this also tells non-astrophysicists very little about how these maps are actually conceived.

With today’s rapid growth in technology, we have forgone (although not completely) the star chart model for something a bit more intense and realistic. Visual outer space mapping is a combination of satellite’s collection of pictures and data, astronomical classifications and design principles. There are various programs available for anyone with internet access to see outer space, such as MarsTrek, Google Sky, NASA Gallery, The Digital Universe, planetarium shows, just to name a few. I’m going to focus on some work from The Digital Universe and UC Berkeley.

The Digital Universe Atlas

Source: Screenshots from C. Emmart’s TED talk: a 3D atlas of the universe

The Digital Universe Atlas is a project from the American Museum of Natural History over the past 18 or so years. The left image is a map of exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system that orbits a star other than the Sun. The centre image is a map of the colour-coded paths that satellites take to gain a comprehensive understanding and data collection of the astronomical region. The right-most image is a map of the satellites that orbit earth, some gathering information on the world around our world and others aiding our experience with telecommunication and GPS services.

UC Berkeley

Source: G. Smoot’s (UC Berkeley) TED talk: The design of the universe

These images all show you the universe, broadly. When looking at the centre of the right-most image, you have Earth. Fanning out from Earth, there are colour coded galaxies based on their cluster density. What I’m most interested in are these void spaces– not just the ones that are completely black, but the space in between galaxies. Why is nothing there? The obvious answer is gravity and that over a huge amount of time, particles pulled towards each other to create these clusters. But why is there still void space? My assumption is that  we’re still undergoing that process of gravitational attraction, but it’s so slow moving relative to our understanding of time, that we have no idea (outside of how small particles formed this current structure) what restricting is occurring.

This series of images brings about an extremely interesting concept: we are in a containment bound by our understanding of space and time. At the centre of these images lies us Earthlings. But you’ll see that radially these images have an end. That end is marking the line between quasars (think baby stars) and whatever is before our conception of space and time. Makes total sense right? Well, light can only travel so far so fast. This means that the further away something is, the further back in time we see it because of the time that it takes light to travel and reflect back to our eyes. For example, we see the Moon 2 seconds back in time and the Sun 8 minutes back in time. If this is boggling your head, that’s okay because this post is supposed to be about the map not about astrophysics! That said, let’s get back to the map.

All 9 of these images shown of a visual and digitised outer space amount to our conception of what space really is. The cartographers here have a huge task of not only displaying their data in a sensible way, but they also carry the responsibility of creating an entire new reality for people who may never experience themselves. What colours should be used? What’s the appropriate scale to make this conceivable? Orbits are continuous, but their path is void space, and there are not concentric circles planets roll around on, so is making orbits okay? Is what we’re doing okay? Is it realistic? Can we do better? I hope this grounds you a bit as an aspiring cartographer as you create realities of your own.

If you have learned nothing about how to map outer space, that’s alright. If you understand the logical process of optimisation, then that’s fantastic! I hope you can at least implement that sort of formulaic method when you’re stuck on other cartographic problems.


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