A New Kind of Star Chart, from Astrocartics Lab.


Astronomy – that wonderful science that deals with the celestial – never ceases to awe and fascinate me.

Just looking up at night to see all those bright points of light ignites a desire to make order of the seeming chaos.

If ever we do gain the ability to leave our home planet and travel between the stars, we’ll need good maps. And today I’ll share with you a new one.

In this familiar scene from Alien (where the grumpy hypersleep-groggy flight crew realize they aren’t home yet), Lambert is tasked with locating them in the trackless void. The star chart she uses is dense and clotted with stars…

That brings the realization that the task of comprehending the vastness of space – and where stars hang within that celestial sphere – can be quite a challenge.

Meet Kevin Wall, a fellow Louisianan with whom I share an enjoyment of star maps. His, however, led him to create an innovative system of notation to show the Z-axis on his Astrocartic Interstellar Chart.

The result is a nice compromise between a flat star chart and one with visual cues.Here are infographics that describe his “astrocartic” methodology:

3D star map  Nearby stars map  star chart  star map  star image 1
A closeup of the space near Procyon, from the Astrocartica Interstellar Chart.

Since a child in the 1970s, I have been fascinated with maps of the celestial bodies through which we move. With each successive map I encountered, I learned a bit more about the universe in which we live.

With the advent of computers, smart phones, and online 3D maps, it is a little easier to visualize local space, but usually the focus is on the snazzy ability to “fly” through the map. I still find myself trying to assemble some sense of space and its contents. Beyond that, I am always on the hunt for a tool that can help me quickly compute distances between stars, without the need for complex mathematics.

Kevin has designed his map to be a unique tool for doing that, at least in our local neighborhood.

A self-described layman with a deep interest in anything involving space travel since he saw the first moon landing at 6 years old, Kevin says his interest kept him learning new things.

What follows is a brief Q&A with him:

THE NOSTROMO FILES (TNF): How long did it take you to perfect your methodology for illustrating the three-dimensional chart?

KEVIN WALL: I have been working on them on and off since the first one in 1995. Back then, I was looking for a way to start my own business. I noticed there were many sky maps and maps of the solar system, but very few of the nearby stars. There were a few free ones on the internet but they were very basic.

Also, Nyrath (aka Winchell Chung) from Project Rho had made one, but it there was no way to visualize the third dimension. So I thought a star map of the nearest stars that would visualize all the dimensions would be a good idea.

TNF: That sounds a lot like my own thoughts over the years. But you took that next step and came up a way to visualize that Z-axis. How’d that come about?.

WALL: So looking at the methods, I decided to make an isometric style map for sale. I put an ad in a couple magazines but I didn’t get much response. Knowing what I know now, I should have kept the ads going, but posters were much more expensive to print then and I would have needed a lot of orders to justify investing in it.

TNF: An issue that plagues many fledgling enterprises. What came next?

WALL: After that, I pondered on my map now and then. I had used a method that is commonly used to visualize objects in 3D space. It is part of a few styles of parallel projections which along with 3D perspective are pictorial diagrams. The thing is about these methods is that they show one of the dimensions in an altered way so that people can use their system of visual cues to guess at the depth of the dimension that points into the map.

When you look at 2 star systems on these maps you can get a general idea of their relative 3D positions. But it is a hazy one and if you want to get the real distance you have to use some math including perhaps the Pythagorean Theorem. So I felt that these maps were more like pictures then actual maps. A real map should give real distances without a lot of work to calculate them.

Kevin provided The Nostromo Files with a review copy of the chart, and if you think these images are eye-popping, the real thing is even better.

3D star map  Nearby stars map  star chart  star map  star image 2

Kevin’s chart is worthy of display solely as a piece of printed artwork. Printed on a sheet of 33″ x 27″ archival paper, it doubles as an instrument for visualizing the cosmos out to 25 light-years.

When I first reached out to Kevin about his distinctive star chart, he joked that perhaps if the Nostromo crew had decent charts, they wouldn’t have gotten into that trouble around Zeta 2 Reticuli.

After laying eyes on The Astrocartic Interstellar Chart, I might have to agree with him…


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