The stars you and I see in the sky every night are different than the patterns our distant ancestors saw. They're also different than the patterns our distant descendants will see. Thanks to a naturally-occurring wobble in the Earth's axis—called a "precession"—the alignment of the stars in our night sky change drastically every several thousand years. A project from the interactive design studio Tellart and the experimental design company Droog shows us what future stargazers will see.
For Tellart co-founder Matt Cottam—whose forward-thinking projects include Dubai's Museum of the Future and the Google Chrome Web Lab—speculating about future technologies is a typical part of the daily to-do list. But for two weeks starting back in May, Cottam was engaged in an activity rooted firmly in the past: he sailed from the Azores to Portsmouth, England, a 1,500-mile journey during which he navigated with only a traditional sextant, the stars, and the sun.
It was that star-guided boat trip that led Cottam and his team to embark on the studio's latest project, a series of celestial maps entitled Deep Future. Using astrological data from the open-source website Stellarium, the designers at Tellart created 10 prints that show the evolution of the night sky over the course of the next 100,000 years, based on calculations of the Earth's precession. Divided into 10,000 year increments, the prints map out the view of the sky from the North Pole on January 1.
To produce the maps, Tellart paired up with the designers at Droog to hold a four-day live installation of the entire process in their Amsterdam space this past December. The team built a robotic drawing machine that translates the maps into gorgeous, indigo-dyed cloth prints. Even more impressive? The robot's technique. It drips melted beeswax onto the cloth to render the maps—then, the the print is dipped in dye and the wax removed. The undyed constellations pop from the indigo background in clean, white lines (you can see the process in the video below).
While the process is cool, the remarkable thing about the project is how much the prints differ from one another. In 13,000 years from now, for example, the constellations will have shifted so much that our Northern Star, Polaris, will be replaced by the star Vega. "We think of the North Star as this permanent point of guidance, but it actually changes," Cottam says. "It's the same thing with the big dipper. In the future, the big dipper will not look like a ladle at all."