What MOON KNIGHT Gets Right About Celestial Navigation

As a professional over-thinker, I am always ready to critique scientific inconsistencies in pop culture. But even though Moon Knight‘s premise relies on superhero powers bestowed by an ancient god, it also includes some real-life science. Episode three provides a mostly accurate astronomical history lesson. Along with a hefty dose of Easter eggs.

Let’s start with that star chart. Ancient Egyptians had different names and art for the constellations. Some are still being discovered. As shown in the picture below, the seven stars we know as the Big Dipper or Ursa Major instead made up the leg of a bull. Stars are five pointed, just how Steven Grant folds the pieces of Senfu’s shroud. Star charts were often painted on the lids of coffins and ceilings of temples and tombs.

Egyptian art of the constellation known as the Big Dipper, represented as a bull's leg
Soutekh67/Wikimedia Commons
Did Ancient Egyptians Use Celestial Navigation?

Ancient Egyptians understood the patterns of the sun, moon, and stars and used them to navigate. They also made the first 365 day calendar, predicted the flooding of the Nile, and aligned the pyramids to celestial objects. While celestial navigation is often associated with early Polynesians in the Pacific Ocean, Egyptians used the technique around the same time.

The calculations require measuring the distance between an object in the sky and the horizon. So it’s more difficult on land, but not impossible. Sextants and other devices weren’t invented until a few hundred years ago. Instead, ancient Egyptians used plumb lines, a weight on a string, to measure vertical lines from the sun or stars. This is also how they aligned their pyramids. In Moon Knight, Layla has technology that does the measuring and the math for her, as do most modern navigators.

Steven Grant opening a star map in episode 3 of Moon Knight
Marvel Studios

The central constellation of the star map is clearly what we know as Orion, with the three stars of the belt and three more in the sword. In ancient Egypt, this is the constellation Osiris, another of the gods. It is an important one as Orion’s sword is used to determine and navigate south.

Do Stars Drift?

Another thing Moon Knight gets right is that stars do drift. Our galaxy rotates and gravity pushes and pulls stars so our relative positions change. We don’t get an exact date from Steven Grant’s “well actually” moment, but he does say Ammit’s burial was “like 2,000 years ago.” So yes, the stars were different. And there’s an app for that. Several apps, in fact, can turn the clock forward or back and show you what the night sky looked like. So if Layla’s tablet had connectivity, a quick download could have kept Khonshu out of his stone prison. But where’s the drama in that?

gif of Moon Knight and Khonshu turning the night sky
Marvel Studios

Plus we got the amazing visual of swirling star trails. And they even rotate correctly! As time progresses on a normal night, star trails go counter-clockwise if you’re looking north. In Moon Knight, they rotated counter-clockwise, showing time reversing. Because of drift, the pole star used by the ancient Egyptians isn’t the same one we use today. It was either Thuban, a star in the constellation Draco, or Kochab, in the constellation Ursa Minor, depending on the year. Our current pole star, Polaris, took over in the year 300.

Star trails over the pyramids, from episode 3 of Moon Knight
Marvel Studios
Will Steven and Layla Find the Tomb?

My only qualm in this sequence is with the coordinates. Latitudes and longitudes of exact places include many decimal points. If the coordinates are exactly 29.0 degrees North and 25.0 East, that puts the site right on the border between Egypt and Libya. Every degree is 60 nautical miles wide, or 69 miles. So if the coordinates are a range rather than exact, Layla and Steven/March have over 4,700 square miles to search. That could take awhile and we’ve only got three episodes of Moon Knight left!

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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