A Grand Tour of the Universe

A map of Venus shows rough surface features named after goddesses or famous women (click to enlarge). MAP: National Geographic Maps. SOURCES: Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar Mosaics, NASA, JPL, USGS

Armchair astronomers take note: This space atlas is for you.  Yes, that kind of atlas—a series of maps and charts that evokes the ability to navigate a place, usually by ship or some sort of vehicle.  In this case all you need is imagination.

Several years in the making, National Geographic’s Space Atlas features 47 new maps and diagrams, including the major moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.  In many cases the maps are remarkably detailed; Mercury’s surface incorporates the latest data from the orbiting Messenger spacecraft.

The crater names on the first planet might surprise you: Mark Twain, Botticelli, Dali, Shakespeare.  There’s a massive impact site called Beethoven Basin.  Mercury’s craters, it turns out, are named for artists, authors, composers, and painters.

On Venus nearly every feature is named after goddesses or famous women—Ishtar, O’Keeffe, Boleyn, Joliot-Curie. 

Cartographer Matt Chwastyk worked with NASA scientists to pull together volumes of data to create the maps.  His favorite part of the atlas?  “The moons, definitely,” he says.  “These are places that no one’s ever likely to step foot on, and we’ve mapped them out.”


From the planets and moons of our solar system, the atlas extends outward to stars in the Milky Way and celestial phenomena like supernovae and black holes.  The life and death of stars are discussed, along with theories about the universe’s origin and expansion.

“This isn’t just about astronomy, it’s all the sciences,” says Jim Trefil, author of the atlas and Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics at George Mason University.  “Our view of the world is getting deeper and more detailed because we have computers now that can handle the data.”

“Everything you can see is as most 5 percent of the universe,” he adds.  “The rest is dark matter and dark energy.  We didn’t know about either of them 30 years ago.”

The final section of the atlas covers the universe at large.  If you want a real sense of perspective, be sure to look at the nesting sequence at the start of this section.  You see our solar system as part of a local star cluster, then zip out to the cluster’s location in the Milky Way and its local galaxy group, which in turn belongs to a galactic supercluster.


And what of the nature of the universe itself?  Picture this possibility: our universe as a bubble that’s expanding (via a mysterious force called dark energy) and shedding smaller bubbles at the surface as it does.  Each smaller bubble then becomes its own universe.

“The idea of lots of parallel universes is incredibly intriguing,” says Trefil.  “It’s a very different way of looking at the universe.  We’ve had notions of parallel universes before, but now we have a good theoretical basis—string theory.”

Asked what he would want to know if he could have one question about the universe answered, Trefil replies, “What is dark energy?  It controls the whole future of the universe.”

What would you want to know?



Changing Planet