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  • Elizabeth Cocking

In this month: March

7 March 1831

The Royal Astronomical Society receives its Royal charter from King William IV. The society was founded in 1820 as the Astronomical Society of London to promote astronomical research. At that time, most members were 'gentleman astronomers' rather than professionals. In 1915 A Supplemental Charter granted by King George V opened the fellowship to women. Charles Babbage, a founding member of the society, was awarded a Gold Medal in 1824, the societies highest order, for the invention of a calculating machine which could be used for astronomy. This medal is now in the MAAS collection (pictured). The medal features William Herschel's Great telescope.

19 March 1965 The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla in Canberra is opened by the then Prime Minister of Australia Sir Robert Menzies. The complex is part of the Deep Space Network run by NASA and was used in the Apollo missions for tracking the lunar module. The location was chosen as it is close to Canberra, and the hills shield the site from radio-frequency interference. It is one of three Deep Space Network stations around the world, its sister stations are located at Goldstone in California, and near Madrid in Spain. Together the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with more than 30 spacecraft.

13 March 1986

The Giotto spacecraft comes to within 600 km of Comet Halley, obtaining the first close-up images of a comet nucleus. The images showed a dark, potato-shaped object with active regions that were firing jets of gas and dust into space. The flyby also revealed the first evidence of organic material in a comet, boosting the idea that comets might have delivered some of the building blocks needed for life on Earth.


19 March 1885 Margaret Harwood. American astronomer and the first Director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Massachusetts. She discovered the asteroid 886 Washingtonia however the finding was quashed four days before its formal recognition. At the time Harvard mentors found it inappropriate for women to receive public recognition for these discoveries. The credit for the discovery has been given to George Peters of the US Naval Observatory, who was the first to report it. She was also the first woman to gain access to the Mount Wilson Observatory, the world's leading observatory at the time. There was a strict prohibition against the use of its facilities by women. When the Director of the Observatory became ill the acting director briefly relaxed the rule. In September 1960, an asteroid - 7040 Harwood – was named in her honour. It sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Photograph below from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows the women who worked identifying and analysing the catalogue of star spectra at Harvard College Observatory. Margaret Harwood is the woman on the far left centre row.

Harvard Smithsonian image - Harvard College Observatory

4 March 1904 George Gamow. Soviet-American theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He was an early advocate and developer of the Big Bang theory. He worked on radioactive decay affecting the nucleus of atoms, on stellar nucleosynthesis and star formation and discovered a theoretical explanation concerning alpha decay by way of quantum tunnelling and was also known for his work on molecular biology. If this prolific work was not enough he was also a highly successful science writer, and managed to convey the excitement of physics and other scientific topics of interest to the common reader.

3 March 1968 Brian Edward Cox OBE. English physicist. Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester. He is known for bringing physics and astronomy to a wide audience through television programs such as Wonders of the Universe and Stargazing and for popular science books, such as Why Does E=mc²? and The Quantum Universe. He has been the author or co-author of over 950 scientific publications. Before his academic career he was a keyboard player for the British bands D:Ream and Dare.

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