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Mapping the Heavens – Then & Now

Finding Figures in the Sky

Astronomers in times past noticed that the entire body of stars appeared to be moving in an orderly way despite the fact that stars go along the sky from east to west, they didn’t change their positions in connection to each other. In other words, each night the same specific groupings of stars were visible. Since man wanted to bring some order to those countless points of light, he connected stars into groups. With a little imagination, these groups resembled animals, people, or inanimate objects. In this way the practice of regarding set configurations of stars as constellations came about.

Some of the constellations we know today were first described in ancient Babylon. Among these are the 12 constellations representing the signs of the zodiac. These played—and still play—an important role in astrology. The names of many of the constellations that we know today are from Greek mythology. Names like Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Hercules can still be found on modern-day star charts.


Star Charts from the Past

About 150 C.E., the Greek astronomer Ptolemy created a summary of the astronomical knowledge of his time. This summary, entitled Almagest contains a list of 48 constellations. Charts and atlases of the sky that were made in the centuries after Ptolemy usually featured the same 48 constellations. In fact, until about the 16th century, the number of constellations did not change. Later, 40 other constellations were added. In 1922 the International Astronomical Union officially adopted the list of these 88 constellations.

Besides constellations, Ptolemy’s publication includes a list of more than a thousand stars, with information about their brightness and their position in the sky. Why, however, are most ancient constellations located in the northern sky? That is because the practice of regarding certain groups of stars as constellations originated in the Mediterranean area, where the northern sky is visible. Only later, when man began to explore the southern sky, were new constellations identified. Some of these newer constellations have names such as Chemical Furnace, Pendulum Clock, Microscope, and Telescope.


“The Christian Starry Sky”

In 1627, German scholar Julius Schiller published a star atlas with the title Coelum Stellatum Christianum (The Christian Starry Sky). He felt that the time had come to depaganize the sky. Thus, he set out to remove the pagan figures from the sky and replace them with figures from the Bible. The book The Mapping of the Heavens explains that he designated “the northern heavens to the New Testament and the southern to the Old Testament.” “The southern hemisphere was changed into a parade of Old Testament subjects—Job takes the place of the Indian and the Peacock, the Centaur is changed into Abraham and Isaac.” In the Northern Hemisphere, “Cassiopeia becomes Mary Magdalen, Perseus St Paul, while the twelve Zodiac signs are conveniently replaced by the twelve apostles.”

Only one small constellation survived this cleanup. That was Columba (Dove), which supposedly represented the dove that Noah sent out to find dry land.

Maps in Transition

In time, the appearance of star charts changed. In the 17th century, after the invention of the telescope, a need arose for charts that gave more precise positions of the stars. Also, the elaborate decorations that cluttered earlier charts became less prominent and eventually disappeared. Today, most star atlases contain only stars, star clusters, nebulas, galaxies, and other objects of interest to the observer of the night sky.

Amidst the 19th century, catalogs that were more comprehensive began to be made. One of the pioneers in this field was German astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander. Together with a number of assistants, he began the huge undertaking of making a catalog of the stars in the northern sky. With a telescope, they located about 325,000 stars and measured the position and the degree of brightness of each of them. Since the observatory in which they worked was located in the German city of Bonn, the catalog became known as the Bonner Durchmusterung (Bonn Overall Survey), published in 1863. After Argelander’s death, his work was continued by one of his assistants who mapped the stars of the southern sky and published his work as the Südliche Bonner Durchmusterung (Bonn Southern Overall Survey).


Today and Tomorrow

The work of Argelander and his successors was followed by even better catalogs. However, in more recent years, after the arrival of space telescopes, unheard-of mapmaking feats became possible. With the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have now compiled a catalog that contains approximately 15 million stars!

A recent development in the mapping of the heavens is the publishing of two new catalogs by the European Space Agency. These are based on observations made with the space telescope of the Hipparcos satellite. Based on these catalogs, new printed star atlases have been created. One is a comprehensive atlas in three volumes called the Millennium Star Atlas.

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