Astronomy doesn´t just happen. People do it. And sometimes rather than use robot probes, people also explore space. Here the stories of some of those people, both past and present.
ABC of Astronomy – B Is for Bok Globule
B is for Bok globule, a kind of dark nebula studied by Bart Bok. B is for Bayer who invented a handy system of star designations beginning with a Greek letter. And B is for Baily´s beads. You won´t find them in a jewelry shop, but you might see them in a solar eclipse, as Francis Baily did.
Annie Jump Cannon
Oh! Be a fine girl (guy)--kiss me! This is the traditional mnemonic for the way stars are classified: OBAFGKM. Find out about the astronomer and suffragette who devised the system and who said that astronomical spectroscopy made it "almost as if the distant stars had acquired speech."
The women of Harvard Observatory worked hard for their meager wages. And the director wanted data processed, not theoretical work. Yet some of them made significant discoveries. One of the least known, but considered by some professional astronomers to be the most able, was Antonia Maury.
Astrofest 2012: "The Universe under one roof." We saw aurorae and learned about solar storms, dark matter and the beginning of the Universe. There were telescopes galore and an unusual demonstration of spectroscopy.
European Astrofest came of age in 2013, celebrating its 21st birthday. It was a memorable anniversary with a fantastic selection of speakers at sold-out lectures, busy exhibition stands, enthusiastic visitors, happy meetings and some sad farewells.
“The Universe comes to London,” read the banner on the courtyard wall of the Kensington Conference and Events Centre. Images of the Universe, people who study it, ideas about how it works, and equipment for seeing it occupied the center for the two days of European Astrofest 2014.
Astronomers on the Mountain Tops
Big telescopes on high mountains, drawing astronomers to some exotic-sounding places. Is it as glamorous as it sounds? Not really, says one astronomer who describes some of the symptoms people suffer at high altitudes.
Astronomy – Why?
Astronomy is an ancient science, and today a popular profession and pastime. But what attracts people to astronomy? What´s special about it? Here are some answers to this question in the words of astronomers through the ages.
Astronomy Day - Bringing Astronomy to the People
Astronomy Day has been an annual celebration of astronomy for over thirty-five years of "bringing astronomy to the people." See if you can find an event near you. If not, create your own event by skywatching with a friend - our Absolute Beginners guides will help you out.
Astronomy Tributes to David Bowie
If astronomers talk about the death of stars, it's probably not pop stars they mean. Unless the pop star created Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and Aladdin Sane, and sang “Life on Mars”, “Starman” and “Hallo Spaceboy”. Here are some of the astronomy tributes to David Bowie.
Beagle 2 – Lost and Found
On Christmas day 2003 a British-European space probe called Beagle 2 was lost on Mars and never heard from. It was not only small, but possibly broken and scattered while attempting to land. Since Mars is quite big, it took eleven years to find the little lander, and there were some surprises.
Bode and Bode's Law
Johann Elert Bode, the author of the greatest star atlas of the Golden Age of star atlases, is better known today for Bode's Law. Strangely, Bode's Law is neither a law nor original to Bode. So what was it? How did it inspire the Celestial Police? How did Neptune ruin it all?
Caroline Herschel was an intelligent young woman trapped in domestic servitude by her mother. Her brother William rescued her and trained her as a singer. After he discovered the planet Uranus, the two of them ended up forming a great partnership whose work revolutionized the study of astronomy.
Carrington Event – Biggest Solar Storm on Record
Dazzling aurorae filled the skies. Birds thought it was morning, people thought the world was ending. The telegraph didn´t work. But strangely, sometimes the telegraph operators could send messages without a power supply. This was the Carrington Event, the biggest solar storm ever recorded.
Carrying the Fire - Book Review
What was it like to be one-third of the Apollo 11 crew? Michael Collins, the man in the command module that didn´t land on the Moon, tells a fascinating story of astronaut training and space travel. Originally published in 1974, a Fortieth Anniversary edition of Carrying the Fire was issued.
Ceres Facts for Kids
Bode´s Law predicted a planet between Mars and Jupiter. The Sky Police were looking for it, but Giuseppe Piazzi found it. Then someone found another one. And another one. We know of hundreds of thousands of asteroids now. Discover Ceres - planet, asteroid and dwarf planet.
Chemical Cosmos - book review
"The Chemical Cosmos: A Guided Tour" is an astronomy book about chemistry - or perhaps a chemistry book about astronomy. It´s an engrossing guided tour that will take you from the baby Universe through the first stars, the formation of solar systems and to our search for the origins of life.
Christmas in the Skies
Christmas is a special day with a magic of its own. A Christmas eclipse is a great treat and centuries ago a long-awaited comet finally showed up on Christmas day. On the other hand, imagine spending the holidays a quarter of a million miles from home as the crew of Apollo 8 did.
Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth
Doesn't everyone know that in the 15th century people thought the Earth was flat? And that brave Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain to get to Asia to show that the Earth was round? Once I'd have answered “Yes” to both of these questions, but it turns out that they are myths.
Copernicus - His Life
The day job of Nicolaus Copernicus, the reluctant revolutionary, was canon of a cathedral. The last resting place of this man who turned astronomy on its head was unmarked. How did his student astronomy books help to identify his remains four and a half centuries after his death?
Copernicus - the Revolution
In the 16th century everyone knew that Earth was the center of the cosmos. But this made it impossible to predict the motions of heavenly bodies, even if they moved in elaborate circles within circles. Copernicus turned the idea on its head and put the Sun at the center. A revolution had begun!
Copernicus for Kids
Since the name of Nicolaus Copernicus is still well known nearly five hundred years after his death, why was his grave unmarked until 2010? Find out about the life of the quiet revolutionary that turned our view of the universe inside out.
Cosmic 4th of July
What links the USA´s Independence Day holiday, the Crab Nebula and NASA´s Deep Impact spacecraft? What links the American War of Independence with the planet Uranus? And what is the Fireworks Galaxy? Read on to find out.
Dark Matter - Poems of Space - book review
What do poets see when they look at the heavens? And astronomers? Are the experiences completely different or different sides of the same sense of wonder? This collection of poems, edited by a poet and an astrophysicist, is a treasure trove. There´s something here for everyone.
Dark Universe - film review
How did space and time begin? How did the Universe evolve? Why is the Universe dark? The "Dark Universe" planetarium show looks at these questions, and how science got some of the answers. It´s informative, up-to-date, and tells the story with stunning imagery and Neil deGrasse Tyson´s narration.
Doodles for Women Astronomers
Since 2013 four outstanding women astronomers have been honored by a Google Doodle. None of the Doodles have had a worldwide reach, but there is a link to each delightful drawing and I've given some biographical details. Read on to meet this stellar quartet.
Halley didn't discover a comet, but he did research and published papers in astronomy and many other fields. Russian Czar Peter the Great liked him as a dining and drinking companion and King William III put this civilian in charge of a Royal Navy ship. But how did he get a comet named for him?
Edward Charles Pickering
Edward Pickering was a leading light of 19th century astronomy who made the Harvard College Observatory into an institution with an international reputation. He was honored for his work by scientific societies in several countries, but his name is now known from his employing “Pickering's harem”.
Empire of the Stars - book review
A fateful meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London adversely affected the lives of two scientists and hindered progress in the study of black holes for a half a century. So says the author of Empire of the Stars. Liked the book, but wasn´t convinced.
European Astrofest 2016
It's great to have access to “the Universe under one roof”. When European Astrofest comes to the Kensington Conference Centre in London, it saves many light years of travel. Here are some highlights of the 2016 event.
European Astrofest 2017
It was the 25th Astrofest – and how things have changed since the first one! No one knew then if other stars had planets. Pluto was still a planet and its discoverer Clyde Tombaugh was still alive. The Rosetta mission was in the very early planning stages, and Cassini-Huygens hadn't been launched.
Father Hell - Astronomer
The Moon's Hell crater sounds like the last place a space tourist would ever want to visit. But it's named for 18th century astronomer Father Maximilian Hell, director of the Vienna Observatory. He observed the 1769 Venus transit from Norway's far north, surviving the cold by adopting Sami dress.
First Orbit - film review
On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin saw what no human had ever seen before: the Earth from space. "First Orbit" allows you to imagine that you are making the historic voyage. Film shot from the International Space Station creates the views, but you'll also have Philip Sheppard's music.
First Orbit - film review
On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin saw what no human had ever seen before: the Earth from space. Now "First Orbit" allows you to imagine that you are making the historic voyage. Film shot from the International Space Station creates the views, but you´ll also have Philip Sheppard´s music.
Galileo´s Daughter - book review
Most people think of Galileo as the man who is a symbol of the heroic voice of truth against a powerful reactionary Church. However this mythic Galileo is not the one Dava Sobel´s book, "Galileo´s Daughter", reveals through his faith, his work and his daughter´s love.
Gravity - Cosmic Glue
Aristotle's perfect cosmos didn't need gravity to hold it together. However a system with planets orbiting the Sun called for an explanation. In the process, Newton was inspired by a falling apple, but Galileo's experiments with falling bodies didn't involve dropping them off the Tower of Pisa.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Henrietta Leavitt isn't a well known name, but a century ago she made one of the most important discoveries of 20th century astronomy. Previously, astronomers could only measure distances up to 100 light years, but her work extended that to 10 million light years.
Herschel Museum of Astronomy
In 1781 William Herschel was the first person in history to discover a new planet. He was observing in the back garden of his home in Bath, England. The house where history was made is a museum and its new Caroline Lucretia Gallery is named for William's sister, the first woman to discover a comet.
Herschel Partnership - for Kids
The Herschels were the greatest astronomical family of all time. A partnership of two brothers and a sister built the best telescopes of their time, and with those telescopes mapped the deep sky. They changed the way astronomers understood the heavens.
In the Shadow of the Moon - film review
What would it be like to leave Earth´s protective embrace and journey to an alien world? Only twenty-four men have ever experienced this - Apollo astronauts. "In the Shadow of the Moon" uses original footage & astronaut interviews to tell the story of one of the defining events of human history.
Isaac Newton - His Life
Isaac Newton's thinking about gravitation really was stimulated by seeing an apple fall, but not on his head! Find out more about the troubled child and and indifferent school pupil who became a dominant figure in science, and still is nearly three hundred years after his death.
Which 17th century brewer created ten new constellations? Johannes Hevelius, astronomer, civic leader, instrument-maker, writer, engraver and publisher. He died before finishing his great star atlas, so his wife Elisabetha - also an astronomer - finished the editing and oversaw its publication.
Johannes Kepler - His Life
Johannes Kepler gave the first accurate description of the Solar System. As he did his work, he struggled with poverty, insecurity and bereavement in troubled times. Religion and warfare were tearing Europe apart, but Kepler never gave up his quest to understand the cosmos.
John Herschel was the son of William Herschel, discoverer of the planet Uranus. But he earned his own reputation as an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, translator, artist, writer, and pioneer of photography. When he died he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton.
John Herschel – Facts for Kids
It can be hard to be the son of a famous man. Although his father was the first person in history to discover a planet, John Herschel had his own illustrious career. He was not only an astronomer, but also a brilliant mathematician, a talented artist, musician and poet, and a loving family man.
An observatory that a king built to watch the 1769 transit of Venus. The place where official time for London used to be set. Where a murderer was sometimes in attendance when the King walked in the gardens. Find out more about the history of Kew Observatory.
Lacaille´s skies – Arts
Much of the southern sky wasn´t visible to the ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Instead of representing the ancient myths, the constellations were invented long afterwards by European explorers and astronomers. Some of Abbe Lacaille´s inventions are tributes to the arts.
Lacaille´s skies – Sciences
There´s a curious set of constellations in the southern skies. They don´t represent exotic animals, heroic deeds or the foibles of ancient deities. They´re composed of dim and nameless stars. Find out why Abbe Lacaille invented them, and take a quick tour.
Le Gentil - Heroic Failure
Here's the story of Guillaume Le Gentil who went to India to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 and took eleven years to get home again. War and weather conspired to prevent his making observations and illness further delayed his return. Was he the unluckiest astronomer ever?
Maria Mitchell was a true pioneer woman. She didn't brave a physical wilderness. Hers was the harder job of pioneering higher education for women. She was the first American woman to discover a comet, the first to be elected to scientific societies and the first woman professor of astronomy.
Mary Somerville and the World of Science – book
Mary Somerville was an exceptional individual. Although self-educated and - as a woman - barred from membership in scientific societies, her books sold well and were used as textbooks for many decades. Allan Chapman relates her achievements to the context of 19th century science in Britain.
Miss Leavitt´s Stars - book review
In the early 20th century an astronomer made a revolutionary discovery. Yet her life left almost no footprints on history. "Miss Leavitt´s Stars" contrasts the solidity of her professional accomplishment with the butterfly touch of her life. Miss Leavitt isn´t even the star of her own biography.
Astronomy no longer recognizes the "music of the spheres". Yet if heavenly bodies did make music, perhaps there are those who could hear it! Read about some individuals who've pursued astronomy and music in their different ways.
Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille
Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762) was one of astronomy's greats. He surveyed nearly 10,000 stars in the southern hemisphere and invented fourteen new constellations still in use today. He was always thoughtful in dealing with others, but he really preferred the stars to people.
What happens to constellations when you don't want them anymore? Nothing, physically. They aren't real groups of stars like star clusters are. They're the products of human imagination, and they come and go. Here are half a dozen of my favorite obsolete constellations.
Packing for Mars - book review
If you think being an astronaut is a glamorous occupation, Mary Roach's book “Packing for Mars” will bring you down to Earth. Playing in free-fall looks like fun, but without gravity, eating, hygiene and dealing with waste are not fun. Here's the lowdown. Still want to go to Mars?
Phantom Planets and Moons
Moons of Venus and Mercury? An unknown planet nearer the Sun than Mercury? Astronomers can misinterpret what they see, too. Happily, other observers, better instruments and new theoretical understandings can put it right. Here are some phantom objects that many astronomers once thought existed.
Robert Hooke - England's Leonardo
In the 17th century Robert Hooke produced a revolutionary bestseller, helped rebuild London after the Great Fire, and was a renowned experimenter, inventor, musician and artist. Hooke contributed to astronomy, geology, structural engineering and chemistry. He was 'England's Leonardo'.
Seeing in the Dark - book review
Does amateur equal incompetence? No, says Timothy Ferris in a superb book exploring the role of amateur astronomers in probing the heavens. He reminds us that the root of the word amateur is love, and interweaves the stories of these lovers of astronomy with a grand tour of the universe.
Solar System Discoveries – Quiz
Since prehistoric times people have known the Sun, the Moon and five planets. The rest of the Solar System had to await discovery by people with telescopes. How many of the discoverers can you identify?
The Wizard Earl, the start of astronomy with a telescope, Sir Walter Raleigh, Virginia, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Smithsonian. What does all of this history have in common? Syon Park, a stately home on the River Thames.
The Transit of Venus - book review
In the north of England in the early 17th century, there was an amazing circle of astronomers. They were well ahead of their time and included the first two people ever to observe a transit of Venus. What ended this brief flowering? Peter Aughton tells the story.
Top Astronomy Stories 2012
What were the big astronomy stories of the year 2012? Here is my choice of the top ten plus a non-story. What do you think?
One of the greatest astronomers of all time was a Danish nobleman with a metal nose, who was also a publisher, an alchemist and the Imperial Mathematician. His astronomical observations were the key to the modern view of the Solar System.
What Herschel Found in a Dark Cloud
What´s hiding within an impenetrable dark cloud in the constellation of the Eagle? A stunning stellar nursery. Find out how the Herschel Space Observatory was able to photograph it.
What Is Hanny's Voorwerp
Hanny's Voorwerp was first seen in 2007 - a strange blue blob in the constellation of Leo Minor. Since then it has been imaged by large telescopes in visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared light, radio waves and x-rays, but astronomers still don't entirely agree about the mystery object.
What´s in a Name
Things aren´t always what they seem. Many discoveries aren´t named for – or by – their discoverers. Halley didn´t discover Comet Halley. Kuiper said the Kuiper Belt didn´t exist. The Herschels called Uranus "the Georgian planet" after George III of England, but no one else did.
A professional musician named William Herschel was the first person in history to discover a planet. Later, as a professional astronomer, Herschel studied the stars and deep space objects to try to understand “the construction of the heavens.” He was one of the fathers of modern astronomy.
Through the vision and dedication of Edward Pickering, Harvard College had one of the world's top observatories. Pickering had a secret weapon: a team of women computers. One of them was Mina Fleming who began her employment as a housekeeper and ended it as an astronomer of international repute.
Young Astronomers at Work
Telescopes are essential for astronomy, but you don't need one of your own. A computer can be the right instrument. Big telescopes collect data faster than professionals can process it, so amateurs can help. There is also room for individual ingenuity. See what some young astronomers have done.
Young Astronomers Reveal the Universe
In the film Deep Impact a teenage astronomer discovers a comet with a small telescope. In reality, teenage astronomers are more likely to make their discoveries in front of a computer - finding supernovae, pulsars, asteroids. The youngest discoverer was ten. Let them inspire you.
Yuri Gagarin – The First Spaceman Astronomy Homepage | Editor's Picks Articles | Top Ten Articles | Astronomy Site Map
There was no fanfare or countdown when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. On April 12, 1961 with a “Let's go!”, Vostok 1 blasted off. Gagarin was an exceptional individual who came from humble beginnings, and at 34 his life ended all too soon.
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