In this month: February 2022

Astronomical happenings from the past and the birthdays of astronomers past and present.

19th February 1787

The first observation is made with the Great Forty-Foot telescope. Built by William Herschel he pointed the then incomplete telescope towards the Orion nebula. The reflecting telescope was constructed by Herschel with the assistance of his sister Caroline Herschel between 1785 and 1789 and was located on the grounds of Herschel's house in England. It was paid for by King George III, who granted £4,000 for it to be made and £200 a year for its maintenance, although the telescope remained Herschel's property. As part of the funding Caroline Herschel was granted a pension of £50 per year to be William's assistant. As a result, she was the first woman in England to be paid to carry out astronomy. It was the largest telescope in the world for 50 years. However, the telescope was unwieldy and did not prove to be a substantial improvement over smaller telescopes. The final observation made by the telescope was in 1815. It was dismantled in 1840 by Herschel's son, John Herschel, due to safety concerns. Image courtesy Wellcome trust: Photo number: V0024766

5th February 1963

Dutch astronomer and Caltech professor Maarten Schmidt discovers the first quasar 3C273. The emission lines of 3C273’s spectrum didn’t match any known chemical elements, but Schmidt realised that 3C273 contained the element hydrogen, however its lines were highly shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. Such a large redshift could only occur if 3C273 were very distant, about 3 billion light-years away. The quasar is now thought to shine with light hundreds of times the light of our entire Milky Way galaxy, yet 3C273 appears to be less than a light-year across. For the quasar to be so far away and still visible it must be very bright and very powerful. The quasar is not only distant it is also exceedingly luminous. Schmidt announced his findings about quasars in the journal Nature on the 16th March 1963.

17th February 1998

The Voyager 1 spacecraft travels beyond the Pioneer 10 spacecraft and becomes the most distant human-made object in space at 10.4 billion kilometres from Earth. Launched from Cape Canaveral on the 5th September 1977 the spacecraft flew by the planets Jupiter on 5th March 1979, and Saturn on 12th November 1980 before heading out of the solar system at a speed of 17.4 kilometres per second and into the depths of space. On the 25th August 2012 Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to leave the solar system and enter interstellar space.


25th February 1851 - Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto Baracchi.

Italian-born astronomer. He was active in Australian astronomy and was the Government Astronomer of Victoria from 1900-1915. Born in Florence he moved to Australia in 1876 where he worked as an assistant at the Melbourne Observatory. In April 1883 he became the third assistant in charge of the Great Melbourne Telescope undertaking a review of the southern nebulae. In 1892 Baracchi was promoted to first assistant and when the Government Astronomer L.J. Ellery retired on 30 June 1895 he became Acting Government Astronomer. His position was not confirmed until the 27th December 1900.

In February 1910 the government invited Baracchi and a party of four to the Canberra area to select a suitable site for an astronomical observatory. With a 23 cm refractor, donated by James Oddie, he established a small observatory on Mount Stromlo in May 1911.

He led expeditions to observe solar eclipses to Bruny Island, Tasmania, in 1910 and to the Tongan archipelago in 1911. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1884. Image left in the public domain.

13th February 1852 - Johan Ludvig Emil Dreyer aka John Louis Emil Dreyer.

Danish astronomer. His major contribution was the New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, as well as two supplementary Index Catalogues. The catalogue numbers are still in wide use today. In 1874 he went to Ireland to work as the assistant of Lord Rosse who built the "Leviathan of Parsonstown" telescope. In 1882 he became director of the observatory at Armagh in Ireland where he worked until he retired from this post in 1916. The same year he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He later served as the society’s president from 1923–24. The crater on the Moon, Dreyer, is named after him.

28th February 1956 - Penny Diane Sackett

American-born Australian astronomer and former director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA) at the Australian National University (ANU). Professor Sackett was the Chief Scientist of Australia from November 2008 until March 2011.

In her role as director of the RSAA she was responsible for the management of Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra and Siding Spring Observatory in Coonabarabran, New South Wales. As director of the Mount Stromlo Observatory she was responsible for its reconstruction after the 2003 Canberra bushfires. In September 2008 she was appointed the Chief Scientist of Australia taking over duties in November 2008.

Professor Sackett's research interests include extrasolar planets. In 2006 she was one of a team of 73 astronomers from twelve countries that discovered OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, a small, cool planet orbiting a star in the inner Milky Way. Professor Sackett is one of seven women chosen by the Office of the Status of Women to act as an ambassador to promote science to secondary school students. Image courtesy ANU.