About the SA Blog Network

Life, Unbounded

Life, Unbounded

Discussion and news about planets, exoplanets, and astrobiology
Life, Unbounded Home

Cosmic Cartography: Here Is Your (Local) Universe

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Our local cosmic terrain (Credit: Helene Courtois)

A new video tours the nearby universe and makes it charmingly familiar.

When I was a graduate student I spent a lot of time studying maps of our universe. These were being constructed using great surveys of galaxies. Each of these fuzzy specks was triangulated on the sky and located in depth by its apparent recession velocity – the phenomenon of universal expansion first measured by astronomers like Edwin Hubble back in the 1930′s. One of my favorite references was an atlas published, rather unusually, in book form by Brent Tully and Richard Fisher in 1987. This took the dry tabulations of galaxy positions and apparent distances and made them into pictures, real maps, with regions and features labeled and made familiar.

I still have it:

The Nearby Galaxy Atlas (Tully & Fisher, Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Here, for example, are positions of our neighboring galaxies towards the northern galactic pole:

Galaxies fit for an ancient explorer...







It was a rather bold thing to do, to produce these maps, since we knew that our knowledge was still very limited. But what a marvelous thing, to be able to hold an atlas of the universe in your hands!

Time moves on, and now surveys like the great Sloan Digital Sky Survey, or the 2dF and 6dF projects, have fleshed out and extended these earlier efforts by astonishing factors. But there is still something deeply moving about charting out our cosmic neighborhood, whether its really a backwater or a main street. It’s our place in the vastness of nature, and in that sense it will forever be unique.

This new video tour, the ‘Cosmography of the Local Universe‘ by Helene Courtois et al. gathers together our current atlas in a charming and fascinating tutorial.

It’s well worth the 17 minutes to feel a little like a cosmic mariner. And in case you wonder how ‘local’ is local? This map encompasses galaxies up to around 400 million light years from us…

A better quality (to HD) video is also available here:

Cosmography of the Local Universe from Daniel Pomarède on Vimeo.

For more information check out the project page and the link to the preprint of the scientific article to appear in the Astronomical Journal, by Helene M. Courtois, Daniel Pomarede, R. Brent Tully, Yehuda Hoffman, and Denis Courtois.

Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Previous: Diary Of An Exhausted Scientist More
Life, Unbounded
Next: Return To The Pale Blue Dot

Rights & Permissions

Comments 6 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. CiaranJ 3:39 pm 06/17/2013

    Wow and wow!

    Link to this
  2. 2. dernickvw 3:43 pm 06/17/2013

    I think I saw a TedTalk about this.

    Link to this
  3. 3. eboyhan 11:20 pm 06/19/2013

    The audio on the video is almost completely un understandable. They ought to lose the musical background, and get a native English speaker to do the voiceover. The images were nice, but not being able to hear what she was saying — made it an exercise in gibberish. I wish they had zoomed into the local area more to show just the milky way with Earth/Sol highlighted ( ok ok so I am a solar chauvinist — still just sayin :grin)

    Link to this
  4. 4. Williard 10:25 am 06/20/2013

    Fascinating, and I recognize that it is the product of a truly gragantuan amount of work.

    But, sadly, I must agree w/ eboyhan: Ms. Courtois’ accent defeats much of the value of the journey. Not quite completely “un understandable,” I still would rather she had spoken in her presumably native French. A revised, and perhaps even more detailed version, spoken by a native English speaker would be greatly appreciated.

    Still, even as is, a brilliant contribution. I remember when “the Great Attractor” was said to be “in Virgo”; now I see it is behind Virgo and very, very great indeed. What is it, and why isn’t everything being pulled towards it?

    Link to this
  5. 5. SciLover 7:52 pm 06/20/2013

    Wow — was that said already? A beautiful representation of the cosmos and out place in it, clearly demonstrating for our ancestors that we are far from a central place in the universe. I wonder what they would think of this?

    Link to this
  6. 6. jfleury 5:33 pm 06/22/2013

    I completely agree with the comments of the three first paragraphs of eboyhan and williard.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American


Get All-Access Digital + Print >


Email this Article