How An Enormous Project Attempted To Map The Sky Without Computers

from ars technica

Recently, the European Space Agency released the third installment of data from the Gaia satellite, a public catalog that provides the positions and velocities of over a billion stars. This is our most recent attempt to answer some of the most long-standing questions in astronomy: How are stars (and nebulae) spread out across the sky? How many of them are there, how far away are they, and how bright are they? Do they change in position or brightness? Are there new classes of objects that are unknown to science?

For centuries, astronomers have tried to answer these questions, and that work has been laborious and time-consuming. It wasn’t always easy to record what you could see in your telescope lens—if you were lucky enough to have a telescope at all.

Now imagine the emergence of a new technique that, for its time, offered some of the benefits of the technology that enabled the Gaia catalogs. It could automatically and impartially record what you see, and anyone could use it.

That technique was photography.

More here.

Posted in Ideas, Science and tagged , , , .


  1. It was fascinating to read about how early astronomers were able to photograph stars and the position of them without a computer. After seeing the power computers have, It’s amazing that astronomers found a way to photograph stars without hand-sketching them. David Gill, the director of the Cape Observatory, was the man who came up with the idea to attach newly created cameras to a telescope. The telescope would rotate with the Earth and photograph the comets. It worked phenomenally, and this discovery gave Gill another idea: to create a map of the sky using photography. As we see in today’s age, this idea would not be groundbreaking at all because of the vast knowledge we have about the universe through computers and advanced telescopes. But for the time period this was a groundbreaking discovery. What this shows to me is that without the computers or technology we have today, we would be able to achieve very little. This is because we rely on these pieces of machinery to answer questions which we are capable of answering ourselves. Scientists and astronomers back in David Gill’s time had to rely on problem solving and new ideas to achieve the goals they desired. This is troubling for the future, because we would be lost without the advantages of technology, and who knows what could happen to technology in the future. This motivates me to move away from relying on the internet to answer my questions, and rather problem solve on my own accord to answer my questions.

    • I definitely agree; that is truly astounding to see how astronomers got by back then without the technology we have today. We can see how simple things like the telescope have advanced so much over the years. I do feel that we heavily rely on technology to do our jobs, and we should use the human capacity to continue our advancement.

  2. For as long as human history man has been mystified by the looking up at the sky and seeing the many stars that populate it. We have always tried to find ways to explain them, firstly with stories or fables that describe gods creating them for certain reasons or purposes. Soon we started to become more knowledgeable about what these stars are and how they work. However, with the vastness of the galaxy it has been difficult for astronomers to describe what they are seeing without the use of technology. I believe that this article showcases how the best way to find new discoveries or create new things is by combining different ideas or technology. If the astronomers of the time had not thought about using the photography and telescopes together then they would not have been able to capture anything at all. It’s a grand showcase of people being faced with a seemingly impossible task, mapping the entirety of the sky. However, through finding solutions that could be used together in order to accomplish that seemingly impossible task. As the world continues to become more complex at an increasing rate, we must be able to think of tasks as not impossible but simply not yet accomplished. It is easy to think about difficult tasks as nearly impossible or impossible but if we think that way then we will never move forward. There are probably thousands of pieces of technology or ideas that people 50 years ago would have thought would be impossible in our world. However, it is through determination and creative thinking like what is shown in this article that we will further develop our society and discover more about the universe we live in, no matter how big the problem or task is.

  3. What is truly remarkable about this story, is the advancements scientists had made with such little technology. Scientists of the late 1800s and early 1900s, formulated new innovations, progressing within uncharted disciplines such as astronomy, keen to the adoption of new methodologies to advance their work. These fascinating scientists tackled the numerous inquires and challenges of such an expansive field, notably by hand, counting thousands of stars a day, relying on their notes and inaccurate pictures to best aid their goals of completing Carte De Ciel. The project ascended far beyond borders and conflict, as astronomers and scientists from all corners of the globe acted on their commitment to mapping the sky for the greater good. Their images and handwork were revolutionary paving the way for disciplines such as Astrophysics, which has developed into a multibillion dollar industry. Astrophysics and other astrological fields have evolved so far, that the scientists of the modern era question what humans are bound to explore next, funding the exploration of other solar systems, planetary defense, and the possibility of sending humans to Mars. It’s interesting to see the handwork of dozens of young women, that their counting, drawings, notes, and knowledge have allowed for all of these new and exciting projects. However, when analyzing this piece a few things come to mind, I think about the women who partook in Carte De Ciel, the possible international community opinion, as well as what we can learn from this. First, I wonder how women of this field were treated and recognized, the piece seems to graze over their accomplishments, failing to name not even only young women in the photos. Beyond their work in counting, what else did these young women do that is being overlooked today, and what other significant role did they play in the birth of Astrological fields? Second, I wonder how Carte De Ciel, and other projects of that time, were received by the international community. Today, many view national and privatized projects as thrilling, admiring the technologies of international space stations and the photographs published by NASA. Due to public knowledge and stimulation, these projects are often well received and funding is never disputed, yet, as the piece describes, the Carte De Ciel faced financial obstacles. It is most likely that individuals of the era were skeptical about the validity and importance of such work, but what convinced them to continue to pioneer the field, and to continue to fight for their goals? Despite the trials and tribulations faced by the project and its supporting scientists, they proved that scientific challenges cannot be tackled alone and that they require the entire international community to collaborate and commit to clearly established goals. The collaborative practices could entirely reshape the way in which projects are fulfilled and how quickly advancements can be achieved. This idea can easily be applied to the scientific arena today, in not only astronomy but also health sciences, environmental sciences, etc.

  4. I like the idea of making a map of the stars. Space itself is a interesting yet confusing topic by itself because I feel like Space just goes on and on limitlessly and it’s confusing just due to the fact that we have no clue what is out there. Space and the Sea are always interesting topics to talk about because both of somewhat relatively close but we just don’t have a lot of information about it which is crazy. The fact that people devote their lives to study about the unknown is crazy to me. I feel like if that was my career path I would have a lot of questions but going about finding the answer to those questions would have be lost. The process of people like astronomers and other careers that dive into the unknown things came along way. Back in the day the only thing people could do is just look at a plant or a star through a telescope and just observe but now you hear on the news that they send drones and little rovers to a planet to collect samples and things of that nature. For example, the rover that NASA had sent to mars collected lots of data that could help in the research of space and planets. The Mars rover had captured pictures and videos of the environment of mars to aid in researchers, With this you can tell that science has taken a big step forward from where it was instead of only being able to look at things from a distance you can now send something there and have it look around for you instead of you having to risk your life to do it. Hopefully technology keeps on advancing so we won’t be left in the dark about what’s really out there.

  5. Seeing the night sky and examining the countless stars that adorn it has confused man for almost as early as human civilization has existed. Humans have constantly sought means to speak directly, either with mythologies or stories that suggest Gods made them for specific purposes or aims. Then we started to understand more about these constellations and how they behave. Yet considering the magnitude of the universe, astronomers have all had difficulty fitting their discoveries into terms without such assistance of modern technology. The article, in my perspective, explains how merging several methods or thoughts is the most nuanced approach for creating scientific findings or developing new things. At the time, scientists had not granted it anything if they had not explored integrating photography and telescopes. It’s a stunning show of persons responsible for the seemingly unbeatable task of mapping the night sky.
    Nevertheless, by looking for answers that might be integrated, this was feasible to complete that project, although initially looked intractable. Humans should be able to see projects as not unachievable and only incomplete as the world becomes much more sophisticated at an exponential rate. It’s simple to perceive complex projects as almost or entirely unachievable, yet if people think this way, we will never develop. There are many, undoubtedly countless of discoveries and theories that, decades ago, many would have thought inconceivable in modern society. Regardless of how challenging the project or task, humans will grow our civilization and understand more about our universe if we’re tenacious and use our ingenuity, as illustrated in this article.

  6. The Carte du Ciel was a very big step for astronomy. It translates to ‘Map of the Sky’. The idea behind this project was to create a picture or map of the universe through telescopic lenses. The idea was very revolutionary because astronomers had to observe and hand draw photos at night. This was before photography, so technology was the main thing holding them back. Luckily, technology has allowed us to develop photography and high-definition cameras. Scientists used to count as many stars as possible by hand and try to calculate how far some of these stars are. It was a very strenuous process that was limited by the technology they had available. After reading the article, you began to think just how far technology has gotten. Astronomers have been able to take higher definition photos that look incredible. Recently I also heard about scientist discovering the sound of a black hole. It was an incredible discover because we used to believe that there was no sound in space since it is a giant vacuum. Another technological advancement that I find fascinating is space rovers. The Perseverance rover is the newest rover that landed on Mars. Perseverance is full of new capabilities like self-driving and collecting samples. It is already driven more miles than all other rovers in just a year. With so many capabilities, we can expect to learn much more about Mars and maybe discover ancient life. It is quite remarkable to think that we used to know very little about space, but with the help of technology, we have been able to go beyond what the eyes can see. Going forward, Nasa and other organizations also plan on sending people to Mars in the 2030s or 2040s. Technology has allowed us to analyze space in ways that are remarkable. We have learned so much in such a short amount of time.

  7. It is really interesting to read about how astronomers and people before the time of photography really had to do it. Even when you really think about it with photography computers make things much easier than we let them take credit for. Having to painstakingly paint the stores within the night sky must have been very difficult and probably came with lots of errors as well. Given the vastness of the galaxy that we are in and the technological advancements that were happening in the same time, I can understand why many people were stepping away to explain the world that we live in better than mapping the stars. The early use of cameras was not that much better either and the number of difficulties that came with new technologies such as cameras made the process any faster. Even though the early images were beneficial, the long exposure times are what really killed progression until 40 years later. This also was around 1840 but it goes to show you how long technological advancement really takes because going up in an era where everything is very convenient and things are being developed very fast it is hard to realize the actual amount of time and the collective effort needed for this project. The study of astronomy as far as the technology in the field has expanded so much over the last 100 years it really shows the amount of work needed just to come to an understanding of the universe that we live in.

  8. This article is truly inspiring and showcases how strong someone’s willpower actually is. In sports it is often talked about that it is often about more a mental game than it is a physical game. People are not trained to push themselves because it is hard and they do not want to-which makes sense. Someone’s body can actually go farther than what the body says it can do because the brain does this to try and protect the body. This case of what these astronomers is in the same category. Mapping the stars seems like an impossible task- not a difficult task but an impossible task in my eyes. But these people proved this to not be the case. When you really sit down and think about the obstacles that were in the way and how big those obstacles were, it is even more amazing. First of all, the obvious that space is massive and always expanding and it is a constant mystery. We still have no idea about space and we have not really explored much of it at all. The fact that all of it done without a computer is absolutely insane to me. The amount of man power for this is something else that is incomprehensible to me. Whoever thought that this idea was possible had to convince others to do this with them as well. This alone is not an easy task as well, because not too many people would sign up to do something that is considered impossible especially when they could be doing something else like working or spending time with their families or doing some other type of hobby. Once people were on board with the idea, people also had to have the mentality to do it, they had to have the mindset not to quit which probably was very tempting at times. For example, it is impossible to map the sky if it has been cloudy for a long period of time or if it was too cold at night. So keeping people motivated during this operation is also amazing to me. This whole thing to me is inspiring and I can see myself referring to this in the future when I feel myself being challenged. Because some people say that rocket science is hard, well these people did it without computers essentially.

  9. I found this article about astronomy and answering questions that can seem very difficult to answer about the sky very interesting. It has always been a mystery how all of the things in our sky came to be and how long they have been there as well. We always see the sky at night time and see millions of stars and planets and other things and it has always personally been an interest of mine to know all about these and find out what they are and where they came from. Back in the 1800s and 1900s, many different theories arose about what the stars actually were, before we had the technology today to know what they actually are. An article from Harvard states “Light and darkness were symbolic of good and evil and in all cuneiform and hieroglyphic languages the sign for God was a star. Thus, from remotest antiquity primitive peoples have looked with awe upon the stars. They were regarded as the abode of the blest and worshiped as divine guardians.” I think this is very interesting because ancient humans thought that everything that a star was was just a sign of God. They did not have any technology to know any difference. However, today it is amazing to see this new technology that can actually tell us exactly how old all of these different stars and planets are and be able to see them up close. I like the idea of the Gaia catalog because it tracks all of the different stars that we see everyday, and it uses really powerful photo technology to actually see each individual one and answer very tough questions like how bright they are and how old they are. I think astrology as a whole promotes new interests in many people and can also influence people to be independent and have their own beliefs about the sky and how everything was formed in it. A lot of astrology has to do with religion and believing that God created the sky and all of the stars and planets in it. However, with this new technology, it could change many people’s minds and have them believe in other theories like the Big Bang Theory.

  10. This essay on astronomy and addressing seemingly complex questions about the sky caught my attention. How everything in our sky came to be and how long it has been there has always been a mystery. The night sky is usually filled with millions of stars, planets, and other objects, and it has always piqued my curiosity to learn more about them all and learn more about their origins. Before we had the technology to determine what the stars actually were, many different hypotheses about what the stars were emerged in the 1800s and 1900s. According to a Harvard article, “God was symbolized by a star in all cuneiform and hieroglyphic languages, while light and darkness were symbols of good and evil. Therefore, primitive peoples have marveled at the stars since the beginning of time. They were revered as divine protectors and thought to be the home of the blessed. This is incredibly intriguing to me because ancient people believed that a star was nothing more than a sign from God. They lacked the technology to distinguish between things. Today’s technology, however, is incredible because it allows us to see these stars and planets up close and really tells us how old they are. I appreciate the concept of the Gaia catalog because it keeps track of all the various stars that we view every day and uses really potent picture technology to actually see each individual star and provide answers to extremely challenging issues like how bright and old they are. I believe that astrology as a whole encourages people to develop new hobbies and can also inspire people to be independent and have their own perspectives on the sky and how everything in it came into being. Astrology is heavily influenced by religion and the idea that God created the sky and every star and planet in it. But with this new technology, many people’s perspectives might be altered, leading them to accept alternative theories like the Big Bang Theory.

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