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Astronomical happenings in February

20 February 1962

John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth in his Friendship 7 spacecraft circling it three times. The flight lasting 4 hours and 55 minutes and travelling a total of 121,794 kilometres reached a maximum 261 kilometres above Earth. He safely splashed down 1,290 kilometres southeast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. His flight occurred while the USA and Soviet Union were involved in the Cold War and competing in the Space Race. Years later in 1998 at the age of 77 he returned to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery making him the oldest person to travel into space.

NASA Copyright

17 February 1600

Giordano Bruno is burnt at the stake for his heretic theories. A Dominican friar, mathematician and cosmological theorist, he proposed that the stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and that the universe is infinite and could have no centre. Starting in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition. The Inquisition found him guilty, and he was burned at the stake in Rome's Campo de' Fiori in 1600.

5 February 1974

NASA's Mariner 10 spacecraft takes the first close-up photo of Venus, the first mission to succeed in broadcasting images of the planet back to Earth. The images taken from 5,768 kilometres above the planet’s surface show the day-night terminator of the planet as a thin bright line. Overall, Mariner 10 returned 4,165 photos of Venus. The mission collected important scientific data during its encounter and revealed the composition and meteorological nature of Venus’ atmosphere.


25 February 1670

Maria Margaretha Kirch. German astronomer. One of the few women active in astronomy in the 1700’’s. She discovered the Comet of 1702 - C/1702 H1, however as she lived and worked at a time when women were not allowed to attend universities or hold important positions she received no recognition for this finding, her husband, Gottfried Kirch, took credit for the discovery. She was one of the first famous astronomers of her period due to her writings on the conjunction of the Sun with Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter in 1709 and 1712 respectively.

22 February 1824

Pierre Jules César Janssen (also known as Jules Janssen) pictured below. French astronomer who is credited with discovering the gaseous nature of the solar chromosphere and the element helium. While observing the solar eclipse of 18 August 1868 in India Janssen noticed bright yellow lines in the spectrum of the Sun’s chromosphere. One possible source for these spectral lines was an element not yet discovered on Earth. The element was named Helium, from “helios”” the Greek word for the Sun. Janssen’’s work was independent to that of the Englishman Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer, who made the same discoveries at about the same time. You can see one of his inventions on display at Sydney Observatory - it is a very early movie camera designed to film the transit of Venus through a telescope.

20 February 1937

Robert Owen Evans OAM. Australian amateur astronomer. He holds the record for the number of visual discoveries of supernovae. He took up supernova hunting around 1955 and made his first official supernova discovery in 1981. Since then he has gone on to discover more than 40 supernovae. In 1988 he received the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

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