The Beginnings of Mapping the Cosmos

Lab Reports, Timelines, Visualization
Three galaxies in the constellation Phoenix appear to be colliding in this image captured by @NASAHubble

We were challenged with producing a timeline regarding a subject in the history of visualization for this lab. Celestial mapping can be traced back to the very beginning of human civilization. Our predecessors gazed up at the sky, mesmerized by the light that could be seen every night. Early Chinese, Indian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and other cultures’ star maps are notable not only in their own right, but also for their effect on Greek, Roman, Islamic, and, later, European celestial mapping. 

These constellation representations also served a scientific function in that they were set in celestial latitude and longitude coordinate systems, allowing the stars to be mapped in the sky. The daily arrangement of the light spots they witnessed was replicated in rudimentary handwritten records that attempted to describe the regular movements of such objects in the night sky. The early records evolved into stunning pictorial depictions of the heavens throughout time, which are now known as celestial charts or maps.

Over time, these individual images began to be compiled into massive atlases, where sky charts were occasionally displayed with terrestrial maps.

Imagine this

This made me think – about what must have been the journey and how mapping the stars began, what scale it began at, where it ended up, and the timeline related to those changes. Reading novels like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and watching movies like Interstellar and Hidden Figures all added to my obsession with thinking about the unfathomable immensity of space. It’s been a few years, but I clearly remember NASA sharing this photograph in which a black hole and its shadow were recorded for the first time! It’s 55 million light-years away from Earth. I recall marveling at that picture and wondering how we started capturing visuals that are so far beyond our physical grasp and appear like something out of our dreams.

By establishing a timeline, this report attempts to explore some crucial milestones of the origins of calculating distance and how the visuals of mapping developed. As our world becomes more technologically advanced, our techniques must have evolved to keep up.


To make my timeline I made use of Knight Lab’s Timeline JS. It is an open-source software program for creating dynamic and interactive timelines. To organize the data row by row, the program offered a Google Sheet. I noted when each event was recorded, a headline title of its name, a brief description of it, and an image depicting the history of each event I was able to locate.

Google Spreadsheet

Timeline JS is fairly simple to use, and its ability to seamlessly incorporate rich media assets makes it an excellent tool for producing aesthetically beautiful slideshow presentations. I did find it a little inconvenient to have to constantly un-publish and then re-publish the timeline so that the adjustments I made in the Google sheet would reflect.


This timeline is at the high level of Celestial cartography’s history and touches on deeper history and accomplishments. Preliminary research from numerous sources contributed to determining which events are recognized milestones for the purposes of this timeline. This also helped me in determining where I should concentrate my attention. Once the events were selected, it was pretty simple to find the right media to accompany each milestone. It’s amazing to discover how our understanding of the cosmos has evolved throughout time. I learned how it crossed and inspired many cultures to get us to where we are now.

Screen image from the timeline

There isn’t a lot of creative freedom in designing and formatting the slide. Users can simply alter the backdrop (color/image). On each slide, I implemented a different background color that complemented the colors in the hero image on that page. This seemed like a good way to engage the viewer’s curiosity while simultaneously giving them a feeling of the transitions and visual clues.

Many writers have described the history of the star map’s transition from a beautiful medium for myth and legend to practical equipment utilized in navigation and scientific discourse. There were two types of maps. The first was star maps, which were grouped into constellations but centered on their location in the sky. The stars were assigned to a coordinate system, which was first based on celestial latitude and longitude. As telescopic and scientific requirements demanded more sophisticated coordinate systems, constellation pictures faded. The second type of celestial map portrayed the solar system and concentrated on planetary positions and surface features. For centuries, they were cosmological diagrams with concentric planetary and stellar circles, initially focused on the Earth and eventually on the Sun. Almost all of the constellations through which the Western world has come to perceive the cosmos can be traced back to Ptolemy’s Almagest, published around 150 BCE, which featured 1,028 stars arranged into 48 constellations and dominated celestial mapping for the following fourteen centuries.

”I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia…” -Ptolemy

Almagest by Claudius Ptolemaeus, Ptolemy. Manhattan Rare Book Company.


The completed timeline presents a concentrated tale about a certain point in time. The timeline has the potential to go beyond the accomplishments of charts and maps and into the science, history, and technology behind their creation. Because the topic I chose was too wide to cover in a few panels, the majority of the data gathered was not included in the final edition. While creating this timeline, I was astounded to learn so much about the history and progress of celestial mapping. Knight Lab Timeline is a simple tool, but because of its limited flexibility, it may be best utilized as a supplement, integrated into a website with other visualizations.

In the future, I would like to delve deeper into this project, and I will continue to integrate more events into the timeline to cover all aspects that inspired and impacted the science, history, technology, and art of celestial mapping. I’d want to look at the CSS tags application, which allows me to go around tool limits and change the schedule.


Tirion, W. (2018, July 8). The history of Uranography, or celestial cartography.
Celestial Cartography – Maps of the Heavens.
Burnham, R. (2005, January 13). Hipparchus’s Sky Catalog.
Achenbach, J. (2021, October 27). Clay tablets reveal babylonians discovered astronomical geometry 1,400 years before Europeans. The Washington Post.
The Celestial Map- Northern Hemisphere.
Informatique, C. (2018, November 9). Les Globes de Mercator de l’UNIL
Earth and the Heavens in maps. British Library.
Herlihy, A. F. Renaissance Star Charts. In Cartography in the European Renaissance. essay, University of Chicago Press.
Kanas, N. (2019). Star Maps: History, artistry, and cartography. Springer.