Drawing the 88 constellations


As a planetarium director, I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about not knowing the constellations very well. Living in NYC, I do have a small excuse (we can’t really see them), however, in the pristine darkness of the dome, they are of course all visible. Yet, I could only pick out 3 or 4 on the spot. That had to change. The best remedy I could think of was by getting intimate with them: drawing all 88 and placing them in their correct positions in the sky. This of course has been done numerous times before, by very accomplished and professional artists (of which I am neither). But, I took some life drawing classes in college (back when St. John’s still had the art practicum). So, I thought I’d give it a go.

It all started with an imitation of Bayer’s Orion (that one I could recognize - even from Brooklyn).

orion bayer and new
On the left: Bayer's Orion from the 1661 Uranometria. Right, my imitation.

But, then I decided to not just copy the old masters, but make some new designs. Nothing too outlandish and with as much respect for the traditions and mythology as possible.

So, the next step was deciding how to tackle them all. There are 88 official constellations. Each one needed drawing, then positioned on the celestial sphere. I slowly worked through the 12 of the zodiac first.

zodiac
The twelve constellations of the zodiac, shown against the background of the milky way.

Then started with the big list, alphabetically. Well not quite alphabetically because the first one was Andromeda - a little too intimidating to start with, so I skipped to Antlia, the Air Pump, perhaps the least romantic of all the constellations. This constellation resides in the southern skies and was established in the 18th century by Louis de Lacaille, who voyaged south and introduced 14 new constellations to the already existing catalogues. The Air Pump was one of them. I suppose if I were to do a very contemporary and modern interpretation of all the constellations, this one could fairly be represented by a ventilator - apropos of the current events.

antlia
The Air Pump, originally Antlia Pneumatica, now simply known as Antlia.

Eventually, I would have to come back to Andromeda. For a reference (what did Andromeda even look like?), I was pleased to find the Metropolitan Museum’s Open Access images of their statue of Andromeda and the Sea Monster - a 17th century marble of the mythological princess, depicting her chained to rocks awaiting rescue by Perseus.

andromeda
The constellation Andromeda. Inset: Andromeda and the Sea Monster by Domenico Guidi, 1694.

Andromeda is flanked by her Mother and Father, Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus.

andromeda
The entire family.

Here are all 88 laid out in a two hemisphere projection.

88 constellations
All 88 constellations.

The above is just a glimpse at a few of the 88 constellations. There are many more interesting bits I’ve learned during this process. The Southern Birds! The Scientific Instrument Group! Did I mention the Air Pump?

If you want to explore them in more detail, go ahead and checkout The OpenSpace Project. It’s opensource software that lets you explore the earth, the solar system, and the whole universe from your desktop - no mosquito bites, Elon, or expensive telescopes required!