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  • Elizabeth Cocking

In this month: August

13th August 1898

The asteroid Eros is discovered by the German astronomer Gustav Witt at the Urania Observatory in Berlin, and independently on the same day by Auguste H.P. Charlois in Nice, France.

The asteroid, or to give its minor planet designation, 433 Eros, is approximately 16.8 km in diameter, rotates once every 5.27 hours, and is shaped like an elongated peanut.

On the 12th February 2001 the NEAR spacecraft (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) landed on Eros making it the first spacecraft to orbit and then land on an asteroid. It is also the first asteroid detected by the Arecibo Observatory's radar system.

The naming of Eros, the Greek god of love, was unique in that it was one of the first asteroids to be given a male name. Typically, at that time asteroids were named after goddesses or other females. Credits for the image above : Ceres image: Justin CowartEros image: NASA/JPLVesta image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDAPluto and Charon images: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Alex Parker

25th August 2003

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is launched from Cape Canaveral. Its goal was to provide a unique, infrared view of the universe and allow astronomers to peer into regions of space that are hidden from optical telescopes.

The planned mission period was two and a half years but the telescope went on to operate until the onboard liquid helium supply was exhausted on the 15th May 2009 making most of the instruments unusable apart from two modules of the IRAC camera (Infrared Array Camera) which continued to operate until the telescope was decommissioned on the 30th January 2020.

Among its many achievements: In 2005 it was the first telescope to directly capture light from exoplanets. Although it did not resolve that light into actual images it was the first time extrasolar planets had actually been visually seen. The image above is an Artist's conception of the Spitzer Space Telescope courtesy NASA, JPL-Caltech.

Also in 2005, astronomers from the University of Wisconsin determined, based on 400 hours of observation on the Spitzer Space Telescope, that the Milky Way galaxy has a more substantial bar structure across its core than previously recognized.

24th August 2006

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) at its XXVIth General Assembly downgrades Pluto to dwarf planet status. Our solar system went from having nine major planets to having eight major planets. The key difference is that a planet has cleared other objects in the area of its orbit while a dwarf planet has not.

As of 2020 the IAU officially recognises five dwarf planets - Pluto, Ceres, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake. However there are many other known candidates for dwarf planet status.

The decision still sparks debate. The word plutoed – meaning to demote or devalue something – has entered our vocabulary.


13th August 1814

Anders Jonas Ångström. Swedish physicist. One of the founders of spectroscopy. His studies of the solar spectrum led to his discovery that hydrogen is present in the Sun’s atmosphere. In 1867 He was the first to examine the spectrum of the aurora borealis and to detect the characteristic bright line of oxygen in its yellow-green region, but was mistaken in supposing that this same line is also to be seen in the zodiacal light.

He was elected a member of a number of learned societies, including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1850 and the Royal Society in 1870.

The Ångström unit in which the wavelengths of light are measured is named after him.

The crater Ångström on the Moon is named in his honour.

9th August 1861

Dorothea Klumpke Roberts. Astronomer. American born but did most of her work in France. First American woman astronomer to receive a Ph.D. in astronomy. The image at left shows Klumpke measuring stars for the Astrographic catalogue and is courtesy Paris Observatory.

She studied mathematics and mathematical astronomy at the University of Paris and received her B.S. in 1886 and Ph.D. in 1893, the first awarded to a woman at that institution, and the first Ph.D. awarded to an American woman on an astronomical topic - The Rings of Saturn.

She was appointed Director of the Bureau of Measurements at the Paris Observatory and was responsible for charting and cataloguing stars down to 11th magnitude for the Astrogrpahic Catalogue, a project which also involved Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide Observatories.. The image above shows Klumpke measuring stars for the Astrographic catalogue and is courtesy Paris Observatory.

Her work earned her the award of the Prix des Dames of the Societe Astronomique de France, and she was named an Officer of the Paris Academy of Sciences. In 1899 she was selected to observe the Leonid meteor shower from a hot air balloon, however the shower turned out be a failure.

Two asteroids 339 Dorothea and 1040 Klumpkea are named after her.

12th August 1919

Eleanor Margaret Burbidge. British-American observational astronomer and astrophysicist. She was one of the founders of stellar nucleosynthesis and was the first author of the influential B2FH paper (a landmark scientific paper on the origin of the chemical elements). During her career she worked on galaxy rotation curves and quasars, discovering the most distant astronomical object then known and helped develop and utilise the Faint Object Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope. She held several leadership and administrative posts, including Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory (1973–75), President of the American Astronomical Society (1976–78) and was the first director of the Centre for Astronomy and Space Sciences at University of California at San Diego

She was well known for her work opposing discrimination against women in astronomy.

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