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
Anniversaries in 2011
Fifty years ago in 1961, Ham the pioneering astrochimp was launched into space aboard Mercury-Redstone 2. He survived the flight, returned to Earth and lived another 17 years. Ham's grave at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico1, is marked by a memorial plaque at the International Space Hall of Fame. Also in 1961, Russian cosmonaut Colonel Yuri Gagarin (1934 - 68) became the first human being to be launched into outer space, aboard Vostok 1. Colonel Gagarin spent one hour and 48 minutes off the Earth, and returned safely home to a hero's welcome. Less than a month after Colonel Gagarin's space flight, America's first astronaut Alan Shepard left Earth aboard Mercury-Redstone 3, following the success of previous Mercury mission pilot Ham the astrochimp, who had proved that tasks could be performed in zero gravity. Just after Shepard's successful space flight, US President John F Kennedy delivered the famous speech:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
A century ago Williamina Fleming died from pneumonia on 21 May, aged 54 years. During her life she discovered over 50 nebulae including the enigmatic Horsehead Nebula in Orion. Williamina Fleming wrote in her journals about very hot, dense stars at the end of their stellar lifetime, calling them 'white dwarfs', a term still used by astronomers today. Another pioneer who died in 1911 was Eugene Burton Ely, an American pilot who was the first to take off from and land back on a ship. Ely was killed two days before his 32nd birthday when a plane he was piloting crashed; he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
French astronomer and mathematician Urbain Le Verrier was born in 1811. He is credited with the discovery2 of the planet Neptune after he calculated its orbit to explain discrepancies in the orbit of Uranus. Also in 1811, the Great Comet (C/1811 F1) was discovered by another French astronomer, Honoré Flaugergues. The Great Comet of 1811 was visible to the naked eye for about nine months, making it the longest-lasting visible comet in recorded history, a record which lasted almost two centuries until it was smashed by the 18-month naked eye duration of Comet Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1).
Three hundred years ago this year, Thomas Wright was born in Co Durham, England. In 1750 he wrote An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe which put forward the idea that 'cloudy spots' (thought to be nebulae) could be external galaxies completely separate from our own galaxy, which he described as a flattened disc of stars, an idea far ahead of its time. Wright's observatory still stands, on a hill in Westerton, Co Durham.
In 1611 Johannes Hevelius, the founder of selenography (lunar topography) was born. He compiled the last major star catalogue to be made with naked-eye instruments and was also the discoverer of four comets. Hevelius devised several constellation shapes; some did not survive the cull in 1922 by the IAU (International Astronomical Union) but seven were retained and they form part of the internationally-recognised 88. Hevelius' constellations are: Sextans the Sextant, named after his favourite scientific instrument, Scutum the Shield, Lacerta the Lizard, Lynx the Wildcat, Leo Minor, Canes Venatici and Vulpecula the Fox.
April Diary Dates
- 03: New Moon. It's also Mothering Sunday in the UK.
- 04: Brand new crescent moon over setting Mercury (early evening)
- 07: The Moon passes between 'the eye of the Bull' Aldebaran and The Pleiades in Taurus
- 13: Moon close to Regulus (alpha Leonis)
- 16: Alignment between Saturn and the Moon
- 17: Spica (alpha Virginis) above almost-full Moon
- 18: April's Full Moon is called the Pink or Fish Moon
- 21: (Morning) Moon close to Antares (alpha Scorpii)
- 22: Lyrids meteor shower maximum
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.