The 8th of September, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the first screening of the original Star Trek television series.  In this post we cover some of the locational aspects of the Star Trek phenomenon.

Growing up, Star Trek was a pretty big part of my life (more than you wanted to know, I’m sure).  Before 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, the world of Star Trek was all about the future, but one where space travel was the norm and there was room for harmony amongst the races (let alone species).  The passion of Kirk was complimented by the logic of Spock but woe betide anyone wearing a red shirt.   In retrospect, the programme was pretty radical, with a diversity not often seen on television screens at the time.  Gene Roddenberry described it as “wagon train in to the stars” and when it was working at its best it was always about people.  I think I probably got many of my ideas about fairness, justice, tolerance and doing the right thing from this misspent youth (well, that and Gilligan’s Island…).  But I didn’t care about any of that then.  It was just cool to be on the continuing voyages of the Starship Enterprise.


I caught it mostly in reruns after school.

From where I sit now, it’s interesting to think about the locational aspects of it (really?).  I remember talk of quadrants, courses and coordinates for beaming down.  Here on backwards Earth we’ve of course got latitude and longitude and our coordinate systems, but how does that all work in the Star Trek universe?  Let’s start with the whole quadrant thing.

Don’t quote me on this because I am not all knowing of the ST universe, but most of the action takes place in our local galaxy, the Milky Way, which was broken up into four quadrants.  The galactic centre sits at the centre of this system and gives us our central axis.  Being essentially a disc, with a much greater horizontal extent than vertical, ST treats is essentially as a horizontal plane:


Seen from a slightly elevated angle, we can see the spiral arms and the Galactic Bulge.


Our neighbourhood is in the Local Arm of the galaxy where much of the action takes place.  Earth is the centre of the United Federation of Planets.  So if we draw a vertical line through galactic bulge this gives us the centre of our quadrants.  Up points towards the North Galactic Pole (NGP).  The plane then gets divided into four quadrant named by the first four Greek letters:


The Federation straddles the alpha and beta quadrants and if you look closely you can see references to the Borg and the Voyager missions, so this chart crosses several of the programmes.  And how did all those races (or where they species) fit together?


Of course this is one of perhaps thousands of versions of this, developed by fervent ST fans.  I don’t think there’s an official map per se, but this one works.  Vulcan is in the beta quadrant by the way.

So what about courses and bearings?  Mr Sulu was always being told to plot a course for Starbase 11 or the delta quadrant.  Like plotting courses here on earth, we can generally talk about courses as angles.  Again, the fans have theories and hypotheses about how all this works.  Here’s one that I’ll rely on.

Mr Sulu’s instructions were often along the lines of “403 mark 7” which, according to this theory is two angles.  “403” is a longitude and “7” is a latitude, separated by “mark”.  If you go back to the idea of the plane of the galaxy, we can plot a course from our current location to a next stop (whether at impulse or warp speed, depending on the urgency and Scotty’s ability to hold the ship together yet one more time) as a horizontal angle in the plane and another perpendicular to the plane.  For this to work we need some standard zero angle within the plane of the galaxy to work with, like north being 0 degrees for us.  Second, the above longitude is greater than 365 so there’s something different about how that longitude is measured.  The author has done some extensive research (ahem, viewing) and reckons that circles are divided into 1000 degrees rather than 365.

Now it gets a bit (more) confusing.  For our zero longitude, how do we set it consistently?  In this system, the zero longitude vector is drawn from your current location to the nearest point on the edge of the galaxy and then directions are measured anticlockwise from this vector.

Latitude gets a bit trickier: “latitude is measured ‘down’ from a line inclined 25 degrees to the ‘equator’ plane”.  Most locations will then be within 0 and 50 degrees.  Hopefully this diagram clarifies some of that a bit:


Again, this is but one of probably thousands of different interpretations.  I’m sure Gene Roddenberry never sat down and figured out what all this meant – and probably never anticipated that armies of fans would go to so much trouble to make sense of it and ensure that it was all consistent.  One need only do a quick bit of trawling on the web to see just how much effort and energy has been put into this.  Why as a kid I clearly remember desperately wanting a set of the blueprints for the Enterprise – and one magic Christmas there they were – a packet of incredibly detailed blueprints for something that never existed except in a few sets and models, yet fully captured so many’s imaginations.

I’m still trying to get my around how the coordinates work but, in honour of the day, that’s a bit of a trip down memory lane with a geospatial bent.  I suspect I’ll be spending the next few days in front of the telly catching up with old friends.

Live long and prosper


Now where did I put my tricorder?


GIS Blog Table of Contents