The Skies Over the First Global Circumnavigation

Use the constellations to find your way, just as the crew of the Magellan-Elcano (Ferdinand and Juan Sebastián) expedition did 500 years ago.

By Fundación Elkano

Virgnia Garcia, ARANZADI

The Pacific Ocean (1589) by Abraham OrteliusFundación Elkano

During the first circumnavigation of the globe, which took place between 1519 and 1522, the expeditionaries navigated along lines of latitude that were farther south than any European had ever been before. They saw numerous changes in the sky.

Thanks to the Stellarium program, it has been possible to recreate the sky of 500 years ago, on the key dates of the Magellan-Elcano expedition.

Seville, August 10, 1519 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

The Departure
Seville, August 10, 1519

On the night that the voyagers set off, the Pole Star was at an altitude of 38º in the sky, with Ursa Major almost touching the northern horizon. The full Moon meant that they would only have been able to see the brightest stars in the sky.

The expedition headed south along the Guadalquivir River, and the crew was able to see Saturn in Sagittarius, close to the Moon, and Deneb, a star in the constellation of Cygnus, at the zenith.

Although it was not completely dark when the expedition set off, some shooting stars could already be seen.

Sanlúcar, August 20, 1519 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Out Onto the Open Sea
Sanlúcar de Barrameda, August 20, 1519

The expedition set off from Sanlúcar, heading south west, and entering the Atlantic Ocean. They sailed in the dark of night, with a new moon and bright stars.

As soon as the sun had set, Venus, the brightest object in the night sky, could be seen to the west, together with Jupiter. Soon after, they disappeared from the sky to the west.
Saturn could be seen to the south, together with the star Antares.

Tenerife, September 26, 1519 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Technical Stop
Tenerife, September 26, 1519

At this latitude, they were able to see the Pole Star, now lower in the sky, at an altitude of 31º. To the south, however, new stars began to appear that were not visible at higher latitudes.

Once the sun had set, three days after the equinox, a planetary conjunction could be seen just above the western horizon: Jupiter, followed by the red planet, Mars, and Mercury, all in Virgo.

The Moon was located in Libra and Venus in Scorpius, along with the red star, Antares. On the other side of the Milky Way, Saturn was visible in Sagittarius.

Cape Verde, October 3, 1519 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Heading South
Cape Verde, October 3, 1519

The Pole Star could be seen on the northern horizon at an altitude of 17º, 14 degrees lower than when they had seen it in Tenerife. This showed that they were on the right course on their journey south.

The waxing crescent Moon disappeared to the west just after midnight. Shortly before the Moon had set, Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, appeared on the east-southeast horizon.

Just after that, slightly further to the south, Canopus could be seen: the second brightest star in the sky.

Atlantic Ocean, late October 1519 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Journey Along the Equator in the Atlantic Ocean
Late October, 1519

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, they were able to ascertain the precise moment at which they crossed the equator, since they could see the Pole Star on the northern horizon.

Similarly, when the Pole Star was no longer visible, they knew they had crossed the equator and were heading towards the Antarctic.

Orion's Belt was visible on the zenith, and new stars began to appear on the southern horizon.

Rio de Janeiro, November 29, 1519 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

On Land Once More
Rio de Janeiro, November 29, 1519

At nightfall, their attention was drawn to a planetary conjunction to the west: the planets Venus and Saturn in the constellation of Sagittarius.

At the same time, looking to the east, they were able to see the two brightest stars in the whole of the night sky: Sirius and Canopus.

As the night drew on, they saw the Leonids meteor shower with its countless meteors, or shooting stars, crossing the sky.

La Plata, January 12, 1520 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

In Search of the Passage
La Plata, January 12, 1520

Capella, a star in the constellation of Auriga, could be seen on the northern horizon. The Bear constellations, usually used for finding north, could not be seen at those latitudes.

To the south, however, another series of constellations could be seen, since they are never hidden by that horizon. They included the Southern Cross, part of the Milky Way.

To the west of the Milky Way, close to the star Achernar, they saw two whitish clouds, part of what are now known as the Magellanic Clouds.

Puerto San Julián (Port St. Julian), March 31, 1520 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Puerto San Julián (Port St. Julian), March 31, 1520

The almost full Moon meant that only the brightest objects in the sky were visible. Sirius and Canopus could be seen to the west during the first hours of darkness.

The Southern Cross shone higher in the sky—almost on the zenith—while to the west, close to the Moon, were Jupiter and Antares, the red star of the constellation of Scorpius.

Strait of Magellan, October 21, 1520 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

The Passage to the Strait
Strait of Magellan, October 21, 1520

Now fully immersed in the southern spring, they could see the Andromeda constellation skimming the northern horizon.

Saturn was visible to the west, close to the C-shaped waxing crescent moon. The Southern Cross was clearly visible as they looked directly south.

Mariana Islands, March 6, 1521 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

On Land Once More
Mariana Islands, March 6, 1521

After more than three months without setting foot on land, and having crossed the equator once more, the Pole Star was again visible from the Mariana Islands over the northern horizon, with Canopus still shining over the southern horizon.

Venus could be seen in Pisces, with the red planet, Mars, approaching the zenith.

Mactan, April 27, 1521 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Battle and the Death of Magellan
Mactan, April 27, 1521

After sunset, the sky was bright and they were able to observe the planet Venus in Gemini, and Mars next to Regulus.

Shortly afterward, Orion could no longer be seen to the west, followed by the brightly shining Sirius, Canopus, and Capella, as they made way for the usual spring constellations.

Jupiter and the waning Moon could be seen throughout the second half of the night in Sagittarius, on either side of the Milky Way.

Maluku Islands, November 8, 1521 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Arrival at Their Destination
Maluku Islands (Moluccas), November 8, 1521

Mars disappeared at nightfall over the western horizon, followed by the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which were very close to the waxing crescent moon, almost at the zenith.

To the north, they were able to identify the Pole Star thanks to Cassiopeia, since Ursa Major would not be visible until later.

Indian Ocean, January 25, 1522 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Crossing the Indian Ocean
Indian Ocean, January 25, 1522

Just below the equator, the Pole Star could not be seen, while Ursa Major rose over the northern horizon as the night drew on.

The Southern Cross was visible to the south, roughly halfway between Canopus and Jupiter.

The latter appeared during the second half of the night, very close to the red star, Antares.

Cape of Good Hope, May 19, 1522 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

The Return Home, Without Setting Foot on Land
Cape of Good Hope, May 19, 1522

During the second half of the night, the Summer Triangle (winter at that latitude) was close to the northeastern horizon. This is an imaginary triangle whose vertices are the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega, of the constellations Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra, respectively.

The waning Moon grew higher, alongside Saturn and the brightly shining Jupiter.

Cape Verde, July 2, 1522 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Stopover in Cape Verde
Cape Verde, July 2, 1522

The Pole Star was visible over the northern horizon. To the south, Crux could be seen for a short while.

The Summer Triangle could be seen at the zenith with the planet Jupiter close to its star, Altair.

The Moon, which was a waxing crescent moon that night, could be seen for a short time after it had grown dark.

Sanlúcar de Barrameda, September 6, 1522 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Arrival in Sanlúcar
Sanlúcar de Barrameda, September 6, 1522

The expedition reached home on a night lit by a full Moon.

The gleaming Moon meant that only the brightest stars and constellations could be seen. The Bears constellations and Cassiopeia could be clearly seen in the sky, along with the Summer Triangle, the constellation of Sagittarius (with Jupiter), and the planet Saturn.

Seville, September 8, 1522 (2020)Original Source: Stellarium

Landing at Seville
Seville, September 8, 1522

The Pole Star had returned to their departure point. Just at the point of the autumnal equinox, Ursa Major moved along the northern horizon.

Deneb was at the zenith, while the Summer Triangle had moved, making way for Pegasus and Andromeda. Next to Andromeda, in the constellation of Aries, the Moon was waning.

To the south, Jupiter in Sagittarius and Saturn in Aquarius could be seen, above the star Fomalhaut.

The route of the first circumnavigation of the world (1519/1522)Fundación Elkano

Thanks to the Stellarium program, it has been possible to show that, as well as circumnavigating the globe for the first time, these explorers also discovered new lands and the skies above them.

Those skies held the secrets of the worldviews of the people who lived beneath them. They also helped those on the expedition to understand where they were, and to be guided through what was at that time uncharted territory.

Credits: Story

Exhibition curator:

Virginia Garcia
Aranzadi Science Society

This exhibition is part of the First Voyage Around the World project.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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