Babe Among the Stars

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

Babe Among the Stars 31 July - 10 Sept 2008

Certainly one of the most enthralling things about human life is the recognition that we live in what, for practical purposes, is a universe without bounds.

– James van Allen, American space scientist born 7 September, 1914

Birthdays this column's duration include Commander (retired) Neil Armstrong, born 5 August, 1930. He first went into space in 1966, but it was his July 1969 mission to the Moon which planted him firmly in the history books. As the first man to set foot on another world, the words he spoke as he lowered himself down onto the lunar surface couldn't have been more fitting:

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

A wedding which was out of this world (literally) took place on 10 August, 2003. The bride, Ekaterina Dmitrieva, was in Texas, but her groom, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko was aboard the ISS serving as Alpha Commander.

German astrophysicist Eva Ahnert-Rohlfs was born on 11 August, 1912. Her work included cataloguing variable stars. She was married to Paul Oswald Ahnert, the astronomer who published Kalender für Sternenfreunde (Calendar for star friends) every year between 1948 and 1988.

On 12 August, 1877, US astronomer Asaph Hall discovered an object orbiting Mars. It was eventually named Deimos (Dread), one of the sons of Ares (Roman name Mars), the god of war, after whom the planet is named. On 18 August, Hall discovered Mars' other moon, now named Phobos (Fear), another of Ares' sons. Jonathan Swift (1667 - 1745), the author of Gulliver's Travels and Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) wrote about Martian moons long before they were discovered, and both have a crater on Deimos named in their honour.

On 15 August, 1977, SETI received something interesting and a volunteer made a note of referral on the print-out. Dr Jerry Ehman who was working at the Big Ear radio telescope noticed the characters '6EQUJ5' and labelled it WOW! Although many have tried to recreate the exact same set of circumstances under which the signal was received, nothing more has been heard from the source. It remains an enigma three decades on; perhaps the shy aliens will knock on our door again one day.

Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed was born on 19 August, 1646. He catalogued almost 3,000 stars and they are still known by their Flamsteed designations. There is a crater on the Moon named after him.

Born on 20 August, 1719, Czechoslovakian Christian Mayer became Court Astronomer for the Churfürst in Mannheim, Germany. In 1769 he travelled to Saint Petersburg in Russia to witness the Venus transit, and later published his account of this event. His great passion was binary stars, he catalogued 80 which featured in the Astronomisches Jahrbuch of 1781 by Johann Elert Bode. Improved instruments and techniques since then have found that some of Mayer's doubles were line-of-sight alignments which bore no relationship to each other.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was born on 22 August, 1834 in Massachusetts. He was a solar physicist, inventor and aviation pioneer. In his honour there is a Langley unit of solar radiation, Mount Langley in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the NASA Langley Research Centre are all named after him.

Polish astronomer Stanisław Lubieniecki was born on 23 August, 1623. He was into comets a full century before the more famous 'comet ferret' Charles Messier. His Theatrum cometicum ('Theatre of Comets') published in 1668 contained descriptions and illustrations of over 400 comets dating back over 2,000 years.

American astronaut Captain Gregory Bruce Jarvis was born on 24 August, 1944. The father-of-three was a Master of Science in electrical engineering, and his hobbies included playing squash, riding his bike, backpacking, white water rafting and playing his classical guitar. He was the payload specialist aboard the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger which exploded just after lift-off on 28 January, 1986.

The most famous ring system around a planet belongs to majestic Saturn, but did you know that Neptune also has them? Its first ring was discovered only as late as 1968 because Neptune is 2.7 billion miles from Earth, and cannot be seen well without a powerful visual aid. The spacecraft Voyager 2 made a close approach to Neptune on 25 August, 1989, confirming the existence of more rings and six hitherto-unknown moons. The Neptune flyby was exactly eight years to the day after its encounter with Saturn on 25 August, 1981, on its journey through our Solar System.

The first Canadian to walk in space was Colonel Chris Austin Hadfield. He was one of four successful Canadians to join the NASA space programme in 1992 from over 5,300 applicants. He celebrates his 49th birthday on 29 August.

Command Module Pilot John Leonard Swigert (Jack) was born on 30 August, 1931. One of only two dozen men to have flown to the Moon, Swigert was aboard the disaster-prone Apollo 13 lunar mission in April 1970. In the film of the same name about the doomed flight, Swigert's role was portrayed by Kevin Bacon, but it's the words uttered by Captain Jim Lovell: Houston, we have a problem, which has become one of the most memorable phrases of the space programme, and surely, the king of all understatements. Swigert contracted bone cancer and died of the disease in 1982. There is a statue of Swigert in his spacesuit at Denver International Airport, Colorado.

English astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell was the first Director of Jodrell Bank Observatory. He pioneered radar systems and built the world's largest radio telescope, which is named after him, in the mid-1950s. On 31 August Sir Bernard will celebrate 95 years of age, so many happy returns of the day to him.

On 1 September, 1804, one of the largest asteroids was discovered by German astronomer Karl Ludwig Harding (1765 - 1834). The asteroid was named Juno after the Roman goddess, daughter of Saturn and sister/wife of Jupiter. Juno was the mother of Mars and Patron goddess of the Roman Empire.

American schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was born on 2 September, 1948. She was chosen to represent all schoolteachers in the 'Teacher in Space' mission by NASA. As she prepared to teach from space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, countless Americans got caught up in the excitement of an 'ordinary' person going up with the astronauts; she was, in effect, flying into the unknown for all those left behind. The Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, New Hampshire is named in her memory and there is a Christa McAuliffe Space Education Centre in Utah.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

– US President Ronald Reagan

On 10 September, 1858, the asteroid 55 Pandora was first reported by American priest and 'enthusiastic amateur' astronomer George Searle, who also added half-a-dozen galaxy discoveries to his name.

Upcoming Events

On 1 August there is a total eclipse of the Sun, but not everyone will be able to witness this awesome spectacle. The path of totality begins in Canada, moves through Greenland and Russia before ending in China. So called 'eclipse-chasers' have had their hotel rooms booked a long time in advance. Special eclipse tours are heading for Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia, and Hami (Qumul), northern China. If you're lucky enough to be in the path of totality (or even partial) then please do take care of your eyes and view safely. Never look at the Sun directly. Also, please teach young children not to look at the Sun. In October 2005, a ten-year-old boy from Cranleigh in Surrey was left blind in one eye after he watched a partial solar eclipse for a few minutes.

The Perseid  meteor shower occurs between 17 July and 24 August; you can expect to see some between those dates, but the best nights for viewing will be the nights of 11-13 August, best time midnight and after when the constellation has risen to a good vantage point. The Perseids is one of the biggest (expected) displays of the year; you are never guaranteed a good show but past reports average 50 celestial fireworks per hour. The projected forecast is rich; the ZHR (Zenithal Hourly Rate) could be as many as 100. Find a dark-sky viewing area, lie back on something comfortable and enjoy the view! If you spot any please do report it here; all feedback is welcome.

Diary Dates

  • 01 Aug: Total eclipse of the Sun
  • 01 Aug: New Moon
  • 03 Aug: Saturn will be 4° north of the Moon
  • 04 Aug: Mars will be 4° north of the Moon
  • 05 Aug: Venus aligns with one of the four Royal stars tonight, just over a degree separating the planet of love and alpha Leonis, Regulus
  • 10 Aug: Tonight another Royal star, Antares (alpha Scorpii), has a date with the Moon; with less than half a degree separating them this will be naked-eye visible and a glorious spectacle through binoculars as the half-moon won't be too bright to drown out the creamy star partner. Also, see if you can spot Mercury 1° north of Regulus
  • 11/12/13 Aug: Perseids meteor shower maximum.
  • 13 Aug: Is double-date night! Jupiter is just 3° north of the Moon. If you can spy Venus, see if you can tell who she's with: glorious Saturn should be just underneath her, a mere 0.2° separates them tonight. That's one hot date!
  • 16 Aug: a lunar eclipse (at moonrise) viewable from the UK.
  • 16 Aug: Full Moon
  • 23 Aug: Mercury and Venus just over a degree apart
  • 30 Aug: New Moon
  • 01 Sept: Venus will be 5° and Mercury 3° north of the Moon; this will be an interesting three-way line-up if you get favourable conditions as the Moon will be a tiny sliver of a crescent, so have your binoculars ready!
  • 02 Sept: This time it's Mars' turn to team up with the Moon, the red planet will be 5° to the north of Earth's natural satellite.
  • 07 Sept: Antares will be 0.3° north of the Moon

  • Chat about your celestial observances by starting a new conversation below

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