Mapping the Heavens—Then and Now


THE sight of stars sprinkled across the black, velvety sky has often filled man with awe, and throughout history it has moved him to express his admiration for the Creator of such beauty. Long ago, a poet exclaimed: “The heavens are declaring the glory of God; and of the work of his hands the expanse is telling.” (Psalm 19:1) However, ancient observers of the night sky saw more than beauty.

Finding Figures in the Sky

Astronomers in times past noticed that the entire body of stars appeared to be moving in an orderly way. Although stars passed along the sky from east to west, they did not change their positions in relation to one another. * 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 divination of the supposed influence of the stars on human affairs. Looking for omens in the stars, though, is condemned in the Bible. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) Yet, worshipers of Jehovah God were aware of the existence of constellations. The Bible book of Job, for instance, speaks about Jehovah as the one “making the Ash constellation, the Kesil  constellation, and the Kimah constellation.”—Job 9:9.

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 produced 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. Not only does Ptolemy give the position of a star in celestial longitude and latitude but he adds more detail. For instance, one star in the Ursa Major, or Great Bear, constellation is described as “the star at the beginning of the tail,” and the location of a comet is given as “to the left of Andromeda’s right knee.” Thus, “every good astronomer,” notes one textbook, “had to know his celestial anatomy!”

Why, though, 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, explains a uranographer, or cartographer of the sky. 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 it was about time to depaganize the heavens. 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 allotted “the northern heavens to the New Testament and the southern to the Old Testament.” “Schiller’s southern hemisphere was transformed into a cavalcade of Old Testament subjects—Job takes the place of the Indian and the Peacock, the Centaur is transformed 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 provided more accurate positions of the stars. In addition, 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.

In the middle of 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). It was published in 1863. After Argelander’s death, his work was continued by one of his assistants. He mapped the stars of the southern sky and published his work as the Südliche Bonner Durchmusterung (Bonn Southern Overall Survey). The final survey was published in 1930. It was issued at Cordoba, Argentina. These catalogs have retained their value to the present day.

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. The accuracy of these catalogs is as yet unequaled. Based on these catalogs, new printed star atlases have been created. One is a comprehensive atlas in three volumes called the Millennium Star Atlas.

That title may remind Bible readers of the Millennium, or Christ’s Thousand Year Reign of peace, mentioned in the Bible. (Revelation 20:4) During that time man will undoubtedly learn much more about the awesome universe, of which even today’s largest star atlases can chart only a minor part.


^ par. 5 Unknown to ancient peoples, this apparent movement of stars is caused by the rotation of the earth around its axis. For the same reason, the sun seems to rise and set.

^ par. 9 These 48 constellations were known in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Later, they were also known by those who immigrated to North America and Australia. However, other peoples, such as the Chinese and the North American Indians, went by a different division of the sky.

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Apian’s Star Chart, 1540

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By permission of the British Library (Maps C.6.d.5.: Apian’s Star Chart)

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Southern Hemisphere as mapped in the 19th century

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© 1998 Visual Language

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Constellation Orion as it appears on a modern star chart

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Background on pages 25-7: Courtesy of ROE/Anglo-Australian Observatory, photograph by David Malin