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

The Space Race (1640)

Forty years ago this week the human race passed a milestone in its history when Mission Commander Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. There are edited entries on h2g2 which document the event in detail, but I'd like to tell you about how one man dreamed of a journey to the Moon during the Jacobean era.

British inventor John Wilkins (1614 - 1672) was the brother-in-law of Oliver Cromwell, a name engraved on the memory of many schoolchildren, but Wilkins deserves his own place in history. Wilkins wrote a book entitled Discovery of a World in the Moon in 1638, where he spoke of a race of aliens called Selenites1. Wilkins envisioned travelling to the Moon and opening a trade link with these creatures. He dreamed of launching a wooden chariot, complete with wings made from feathers, to the Moon. He even worked out that he'd need gunpowder for the launch, and to give extra boosting power, he'd build his machine atop a coiled spring. Wilkins built flying machines of wood and tested them in the grounds of Wadham College, Oxford, where he was warden (and, eventually, Dean).

During the 1640s such a journey to the Moon seemed within the realm of possibility as the vacuum of space was unknown then. People were only just getting used to the idea of the Copernican system (heliocentrism) which was proved beyond doubt by the telescopic observations of Galileo in 16092. By the time of Wilkins' death the field of astronomy had advanced to such an extent that a trip to the Moon (and back) was deemed impossible.

Just a reminder that on Sunday, 26 July there is an astronomically-themed day at Syon Park in West London, as part of the IYA2009 celebrations. A detailed programme is now available. Do attend if you can, the itinerary looks fascinating. I only wish I could go, but Deke is hoping to attend and if he can I'll post his comments in the next edition of BATS.

August Diary Dates

  • 02: Mercury and Regulus (alpha Leonis) will be just half a degree apart
  • 06: Full Moon and Penumbral lunar eclipse viewable from the UK, the eastern parts of the USA, most of Europe, Africa, and west Asia
  • 06: Jupiter 3° south of Moon
  • 07: Neptune 3° south of Moon
  • 09: Uranus 6° south of Moon
  • 12: Perseid meteor shower maximum. If you get the chance to skywatch at a dark sky viewing area you shouldn't be disappointed, the Perseids are renowned for their annual performance.
  • 16: Mars 3° south of Moon
  • 17: Venus less than 2° south of Moon
  • 18: Mercury 3° south of Saturn
  • 19: Moon at perigee (closest approach to Earth)
  • 20: New Moon
  • 22: Saturn 7° north of Moon
  • 22: Mercury 3° north of Moon
  • 22: Venus 7° south of Pollux (beta Geminorum)

On 27 August, a red supergiant star of the first magnitude, Antares (alpha Scorpii), AKA Cor Scorpionis 'the heart of the scorpion', will be half a degree south of the Moon. From the vantage point of North America (except Canada), an occultation will occur. Such alignments were considered auspicious in olden times and horoscope writers still earn a living promoting their astrological thoughts. It would be quite easy to connect this 'event' with a famous Scorpio, namely the Prince of Wales. The Moon rules Cancer, which is the birthsign of his wife, Camilla, and also motherhood: Prince Charles' Mum is, of course, HM The Queen.

  • Chat about your celestial observances at the H2G2 Astronomy Society. Comment on anything in this edition of Babe Among the Stars by starting a new conversation below.

Babe Among the Stars Archive

Galaxy Babe

23.07.09 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1No doubt derived from selen, the Greek word for moon.2This is why 2009 was chosen as the International Year of Astronomy, it being the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) of Jupiter.

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