The Night Sky

Charting the Heavens with ArcGIS Pro

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Why We Love It

Though we often think of GIS as focused on the earth, ArcGIS Pro is powerful enough to map the heavens above. We love how this star chart and companion story map use vivid illustrations and clear explanations for celestial mapping terms such as coordinates and constellation boundaries. The charts make great use of color and labels, and the map offers a beautiful depiction of the arc of the Milky Way across the sky. Minimal constellation figures in the overview maps help us to quickly orient ourselves in the night sky.

Why It Works

Charting the stars is something most of us have never tried. This map presents the endeavor as an approachable map-making process using clever cartographic techniques for spectacular visualization. The gracefully implemented graduated symbology represents the stars’ relative brightness. This technique gives the chart stunning depth atop intuitive nighttime colors. Larger areas of the night sky are made prominent by a smart labeling hierarchy. Well-crafted annotation further enhances the labels. A clean layout brings together Northern and Southern hemisphere charts. Each symbolization technique makes this very dense dataset beautifully legible.

Important Steps

You can read a Story Map of the steps involved.

Instead of latitude and longitude coordinates, star charts use declination and right ascension. In ArcGIS Pro, you can make a spatial layer of your star chart table by making an XY Event Layer and setting the Declination as the Y field.

Use the Polar Stereographic projection. Since it is conformal, constellations can retain their recognizable shapes. Remember to make a map for each hemisphere to capture the entire night sky.

Dividing the Northern and Southern hemispheres into their own views, and rotating the Southern hemisphere by 180 degrees, will allow you to display the Milky Way as a continuous feature across both views.

Using graduated symbology to indicate star brightness will give your star chart depth.


Data & Software

Data sources: Data was compiled by Peter Girard, who gave permission to use and share it. The only missing piece was the Milky Way, which was adapted from another map.

Software: ArcGIS Pro, ArcMap, Inkscape


The chart required manipulation of data and graphics. For example, the author used georeferencing and custom projections to create the Milky Way polygons, and the Feature Outline Masks tool for annotation masking.


Using the provided data, and without agonizing over any design considerations, you could recreate this map in one or two days. Most of the work is in placing and editing text. It took about four months of experimentation to arrive at this final map.

Polar Stereographic


Polar Stereographic projection provides great results.

Northern and Southern Hemispheres


Use separate views for the Northern and Southern hemispheres, rotating the Southern Hemisphere by 180 degrees.

Stars' relative brightness


The stars’ relative brightness value can serve as the field by which to apply graduated symbology.

More Information

Map Author

Heather Gabriel Smith

Heather Gabriel Smith

Heather Smith is a cartographer and artist. She works at Esri designing and testing symbology features in ArcGIS Pro.

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