Astro-Cartography: Making the Alien Universe Timeline Star Map

Back in the day, when the internet was so new you had to bookmark your favorites sites or lose them forever, Scott Middlebrook started a website featuring a timeline of the events in the Alien universe. Later, he created its very first galactic map…

Maps are an integral part of world-building because they can make stories come alive. With them, we can chart our hero’s journey through their Hero’s Journey. And maybe feel just a glimmer of having been part of it all.

When The Alien Universe Timeline began, it was all extra-terra incognita: there were no such maps, unless you wanted to count this unseen prop shown in The Book of Alien (Scanlon and Gross, 1979):

Image borrowed from the Alien Explorations web site.

As Scott’s site continued over the years, it became a resource for those grasping for continuity amongst the myriad details scattered across films, books, games, and comics.

Understanding where things didn’t connect was as interesting as where they did. Scott showed this in his work and provided interesting insights into his reasoning when he extrapolated things that didn’t perfectly mesh.

And then, when he released his first star map, it all began to crystalize into something coherent after all.

At long last, we could see the Nostromo’s journey, and where it sat on the astral plane:

A close-up of the Nostromo’s route, from the main map.

Until recently, I’d never really asked Scott much about the map. It sort of speaks for itself, really. But I wrote up an interview with him and want to share it with you now!

So without further ado (cue trumpet flourish), it is my pleasure to give you The Nostromo Files interview with Scott “SM” Middlebrook, creator of The Alien Universe Timeline

THE NOSTROMO FILES: Tell those not familiar with you a little about yourself?

SCOTT MIDDLEBROOK: My name is Scott and I like Alien. I did a website.

TNF: You’ve been involved with the Alien franchise for decades. Tell us how that started and what it’s been like?

SM: I ended up getting involved when S. D. Perry contacted me while she was writing The Weyland-Yutani Report. She emailed me to say she was using my Alien timeline as a resource, hoped that was okay and that she’d hook me up with a copy when it was done (she probably wasn’t aware a copy would go for over $300 at the time).

At some point in the process, I don’t remember how, but she put me in contact with Chris Prince at Insight and Josh Izzo at Fox, and I ended working more directly on the project. Chris would often come back seeking clarification on various things and Danelle effectively said, ‘Just go with whatever Scott says’, which was incredibly humbling and I will be forever grateful for her faith.

TNF: That’s remarkable. It speaks well of the quality of your work. What did that opportunity lead to?

From there I’ve been involved in various projects to varying degrees, from writing questions with Willie Goldman for the first Alien Day Twitter competition some years back (2016) to providing feedback on novels and comics, as well as other things that have unfortunately never seen the light of day.

TNF: An appropriate turn of phrase for work involving the dark creatures of Alien. How long, to paraphrase Ripley in Alien 3, has the alien been with you?

SM: Since I saw Aliens in 1986.  I was aware of Alien and had pored over the photonovel in a high school library, but being a wuss who didn’t like scary movies, I never watched the movie till after I saw Aliens.  And even then it was taped off TV so I could watch it during the day and not at night.

TNF: When did you create the first Alien Universe Timeline star map?

SM: I don’t actually remember.  I created the timeline website originally in 1999 on Geocities I think, but stuff like planets and maps came a little later.  Maybe early 2000s or so.

TNF: How many versions of the map have their been?

SM: Two proper ones.  The original which is a bit rubbish to look at now.  The second one was inspired by Fox nicking the map to use on the Anthology DVD menus (you’re welcome De Lauzirika).  The version they did looked much cooler than mine and had a circle to delineate the Outer Rim instead of the blobby shape I used and just looked much more polished.  So the second version was just my take on their take.

I did muck around with a version that included every planet from the old books and comics, but I don’t think I ever published it.

TNF: That must’ve been a heavy lift. Maybe some day we’ll see it. What software did you use to create it?

SM: Originally I used Paint Shop Pro, then moved to Photoshop.

TNF: What changes required an updated version?

SM: More content really. I decided to include things like Torin Prime and Liberty Echo that were locations mentioned in the Nostromo crew bios on the original Alien DVD release. And Cetti Epsilon from Frost’s t-shirt in Aliens. Plus Covenant had been released so I took a punt at pinpointing Origae-6 and Planet 4 (two locations the RPG curiously didn’t use). Planet 4 was uncharted so just had to be about 11 months from Earth in the direction I through Origae was (Xi Aurigae is the direction I picked). On top of that I referenced LV-178 from the books Out of the Shadows and Sea of Sorrows, and Wright-Aberra fuel depot and LV-44-40 from the Defiance comics.

TNF: Does your interest in star maps extend beyond the Alien universe?

SM: Working on this star map, has given me a better appreciation of the night sky and where constellations sit.  Also the incredibly vast distances involved and how a ship travelling from Earth to any of the stars we can see generally wouldn’t go anywhere near other star systems to get there.  You can get an appreciation for three dimensions too.  A map or the sky we effectively see in two dimensions and there’s no third axis.  To stars might look close in the sky or on a map but are in fact separate by hundreds of light years when you include the z-axis.  I’ve mucked around with the idea of doing a 3D map, but only with a static model.  Ideally something that could be rotated in all directions would be cooler, but I’ve never devoted the time to really have a look at it.

TNF: You’ve credited Winchell Chung since you used his maps as a starting point. Why his maps and not someone else’s?

SM: I was looking for real maps that had Earth at the centre.  Star Wars maps (other than being fictional) span a whole galaxy, whereas the Alien films all occur within a few parsecs of Earth, so they didn’t need to cover a huge area.  It just needed to cover an area about 40 to 50 light years from our system, and Winchell’s site had a bunch of great maps that were simple to adapt as well as spreadsheets with all the astrometry and stuff.

TNF: Do you keep a list of stars and planets on your map?

SM: No, that would the sensible thing to do so I could find things like Epsilon Ceti (aka Cetti Epsilon IV) which I could’ve was sworn on the map, but now can’t find so maybe I missed it.  The closest thing to a list is the labels for each layer in Photoshop.

TNF: You mentioned above that your star map was used in a menu animation on the Alien Anthology blu-ray set. What’s the story there?

SM: A (better) version of the map ended up on the Anthology menu animation. There’s also other bits and pieces from the starships section that ended up being lifted for the menus.  It was simultaneously exciting to see my work being used in an official capacity and annoying that there was no recompense or credit.  Price you pay for mucking around with someone else’s intellectual property (IP) I guess.

TNF: The map is issued under the purview of the “Starship Traffic Control Authority,” whose offices are located in “Amundsen-Scott”, “Ushuaia”, and “Wanaka.” Would you explain your reasoning behind those three locations?

That was based on the “Antarctica Traffic Control” line from Ripley.  The thinking behind it is the constellation Reticulum, from whence the Nostromo is coming, is in the southern sky, so a station controlling starship traffic in Antarctica makes perfect sense.  However due to the Earth’s tilt a base at Amundsen-Scott base at the south pole can’t scan the whole sky all year round.  So I made up relay stations at Ushaia in Argentina which is often touted as the most southern major city.  Wanaka is in New Zealand not far from Queenstown, and a guy I was talking to in NZ once told it was in a rain shadow so I thought that would mean it had good weather for receiving signals from space.  I’ve no idea if that’s true but it does only get half the rainfall of Queenstown or Te Anau so maybe there’s some logic there.

I was working on a project with John Mullaney, Graham Langridge, Ben Turner and a bunch of other guys some years ago and if it had come to fruition, there would’ve been a memo like the ‘Shipping News’ from Starship Traffic Control detailing that the Company had changed the status of the Nostromo from Overdue to Lost, as well as correcting a previous report regarding the original science officer who was thought to be on board but was rotated off to make way for Ash.

So that’s where that all originated.  Not official in any shape or form – just something I made up.

TNF: You’ve done a well-received video series that documents, among other things, “The Heroine’s Journey,” and “The Complete Record of Alien Encounters.” In the context of your “Astro-Cartography’ and “Planets” webpage, have you ever thought about adding a similar video documentary on the cosmos of Alien universe?

SM: “Well-received” is probably churching it up a bit, but I’m happy with how they’ve turned out.  I have been looking at doing other videos based on my site content – saves me having to write things from scratch.  I did do a very basic one on the planets, and one on the ships from the films.  Hadn’t considered one on the maps, but you’ve got me thinking now.  Might have a crack at something.

TNF: At various internet forums, you often provide references to help fellow fans still grappling with the details of the franchise. Tell us how your experience with that has influenced your work on your website.

SM: When it comes to resource material, the idea of my ‘Complete Record of Alien Encounters’ videos was to be a resource to use in discussion or disagreements.  Something that someone could look at to see what happened in a particular sequence, and what it might mean.  The reason they’re generally so short is so someone could drop them into a discussion as a reference without having to trawl through the whole film to find what they want.

TNF: A great idea, in today’s “TL;DR” mindset. Let’s look a little closer at the idea of promoting accuracy in the sharing of Alien lore.

There is a broad range of sites on the internet that serve as outlets for discussion about the franchise, its films, and its fans. In your opinion, what are some key things to look for in a reputable site?

SM: Sources pretty much.  Some fansites have connections with people at Fox/Disney, or Titan, or whichever licensee, so they’re able to verify rumours.  Reputations need to be built over time though, and it eventually becomes obvious which sites aren’t reliable.

TNF: Of the star-faring ships shown in the Allen films, which is your favorite and why?

SM: Nostromo.  After the Millennium Falcon it was the first ship that looked like somewhere people lived and worked.  It was slow, clunky, dirty, dark, needed repairs.  A potential occupational health and safety deathtrap even before there’s an Alien running loose.  Yet the bridge and galley felt quite cozy and like somewhere you’d want to spend time.  It was that juxtaposition of enviroment that looked totally cool, and yet the people who actually inhabited it weren’t impressed in the slightest and wanted to be anywhere else.

TNF: Boy, you nailed that one! Now if you will indulge me again, I’d like your thoughts on this one: Very little is shown in the movies to explain the propulsive systems that allow these characters to cross the void. After all these years of involvement with the franchise, what’s your take on star drives and hypersleep?

SM: I tend to go back to the original source material where possible – which in the case of star drives is O’Bannon’s take on hyperspace, with red-shifted and blue-shifted stars. Then Ron Cobb did his engineering thing with which adds another layer of cool.  I don’t really go into it much beyond that because I don’t know such stuff.  It’s just engines that make you go faster than light without no discernable time dilation effects.  I think it’s good that they didn’t go down the Star Wars route of lightspeed or Star Trek warps.  The closest we get is the Prometheus or Covenant zipping across screen as a dot amongst millions of other dots.  I quite liked that simple take.

In regards to hypersleep, that one seems to have evolved a bit over the films.  In Alien, Ridley (Scott) wanted them all nude but instead scaled it back just underwear and wireless electrodes.  Similar deal with Aliens but with wired electrodes (though apparently not at the end and not really visible in Alien 3; despite vital signs appearing on computer screens).  In Resurrection we have people fully clothed in pods that are starting to more resemble coffins.  Then we get the touch screen technology with robots monitoring the sleeping crew in Prometheus and Covenant with different clothing being worn each time.  Based on the ‘cryo’ terminology used in multiple films, it’s some kind of cryogenics.  But again, not something I’m overly au fai with.

TNF: Thank you for that. Now, last question: if you had to sum up one thing about the franchise that keeps you coming back, what would it be?

SM: That’s a good question – I don’t really know.  For time to time it’s actual working on official stuff, to the point that I get ‘Aliened’ out and need to go and do something else for a while.  That’s tapered off quite a bit since Disney took over.  But since I started making Youtube videos I’ve made a rod for my own back a bit in that I have a ton of ideas to produce and don’t have a huge amount of spare time to produce them.  And as I’ve had a few new subscribers of late, I feel an obligation to actually get some new content out.

Other times you just notice something you missed the first thousand times you watched one of the films and get a bit of a thrill that they can still suck you in decades later.

And there you have it. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did preparing it.

Visit the site:

I’ll leave you with a little lagniappe in the form of artwork drawn by Scott, from The Nostromo Files archives:




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