Fifty years ago this December, at the end of a ghastly year of assassinations, riots, war, and political unrest, three astronauts became the first humans to leave the gravitational embrace of Earth, orbit another world, and return safely back home. Apollo 8 was a mission of astonishing audacity, put together in great haste to counter a possible Soviet lunar mission which U.S. intelligence sources believed was imminent. And it served as a major step to fulfill President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the 1960s [Read more…] about The Greatest Astrophoto in History (So Far)Share This:
History and Famous Astronomers
Articles about the history of astronomy and famous astronomers who made important discoveries.
One hundred years ago, the universe was quite small, or at least people thought it was. Not so small that you could put it in your pocket, but limited to the Milky Way Galaxy only, which was thought to be about 30,000 light-years across, or maybe a little more.
Beyond that, if there was anything at all, it was simply an empty void.
That’s because no one was sure what the so-called “spiral nebulae” really were. They were dotted across the sky, often in clusters, though they were scarce along the band of the Milky Way. When astrophysicists analyzed their light spectroscopically, those spectra showed star-like characteristics, but no telescope on Earth could reveal individual stars, either visually or photographically. They remained mysterious, and often beautiful, whirlpools of light.
So although some astronomers suspected these spirals were in fact remote “island universes”, more of them believed they were closer, lesser things, perhaps infant solar systems in the process of forming.
Slightly less than one hundred years ago, these questions were resolved, along with the galaxies themselves, and the size of the known universe expanded one hundred thousand times or more, almost overnight.
And that’s where the Mount Wilson Observatory in California comes in. Its namesake mountain sits at the edge of the vast carpet of artificial lights known as the Los Angeles Basin, looking down on it from 5700 feet above the not-so-distant Pacific Ocean. Today that massive light pollution renders the observatory useless for most kinds of nighttime astronomical research. In its heyday in the early 20th Century, it was the world’s greatest center of astronomical discovery. It was one of the first observatories ever to be sited on a mountaintop for performance, not in or near a city for convenience. Back then it could ignore the feeble lights of Los Angeles and the other small communities flickering below [Read more…] about A Visit to Mount Wilson ObservatoryShare This:
“All things lovely will have an ending”, wrote author Conrad Aiken, and the end is coming soon for the venerable Yerkes Observatory on Lake Geneva in the pleasant resort village of Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The University of Chicago, which operates the observatory, announced earlier this year that Yerkes will close on October 1, 2018, and all public tours and scientific and educational activities will cease after more than 120 years of operations [Read more…] about A Requiem for Yerkes ObservatoryShare This:
More than most planets, Mars has captured the public imagination as a place of mystery, a target of exploration, and possibly the only other place in the solar system that may have once harbored life. The planet figured prominently in science fiction, from the early tales of E.R. Burroughs and H.G. Wells to the latest work of Andy Weir. And Mars is now on the radar of hands-on visionaries like Elon Musk who plan to colonize the planet in the coming decades. The popular fascination with Mars began more than a century ago in the fertile imagination of Percival Lowell, a wealthy and intellectually restless astronomer who speculated about intelligent life on Mars and left a lasting legacy for astronomy. [Read more…] about The Man of Mars – Percival Lowell and the Invention of the Red PlanetShare This:
The artist and architect Chesley Bonestell painted scenes of space exploration that inspired an entire generation of astronomers, artists, writers, engineers and visionaries. If you’re over a certain age, you have doubtless seen his work, and if you’re a dedicated stargazer and space enthusiast, you were likely inspired by his vision of space travel. But Bonestell was more than a starry-eyed dreamer. He was an architectural artist, and he also helped the great rocket engineer Wernher von Braun develop his ideas by fleshing out von Braun’s sketches of moon rockets, satellites, and interplanetary spacecraft [Read more…] about Chesley Bonestell: Artist, Architect, VisionaryShare This: