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In this month : February

Elizabeth Cocking reviews February astronomical occurrences and who was born in this month in the past.

4th February 1962

A very rare and spectacular sight in the night sky. On this day the Sun and Moon and the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are clustered within a 17-degree area of the sky. As well, there is a total eclipse of the Sun!

This unique combination raised fear among many people convinced that the Earth would end. Fortunately, nothing happened! This was the first time since 1821 the planets aligned this way. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn were on one side of the Sun, while Mercury and Earth were on the opposite side. When the Moon crossed between the Earth and the Sun the ensuing total solar eclipse was visible over India.

23rd February 1987

Supernova 1987A a type II supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud is discovered.

It occurred approximately 168,000 light years from Earth and is the closest observed supernova to have exploded in modern times, and the brightest since Johannes Kepler observed a supernova in 1604 in the Milky Way Galaxy; it is also the first supernova visible to the naked eye since 1885. It was so bright that it was visible to the naked eye from Earth, emitting the power of a 100 million Suns. It was the first supernova that modern astronomers were able to study in great detail, and its observations have provided much insight into the processes that govern stellar bodies.

10th February 2009

Two communications satellites—the active commercial Iridium 33 and the derelict Russian military Kosmos 2251—accidentally collide at a speed of 11.7 kilometres per second at an altitude of 789 kilometres above Siberia.

It was the first ever accidental in-orbit collision between two satellites. Until then all accidental collisions involved a satellite and a piece of space debris. The collision destroyed both satellites. NASA estimated the collision created at least 1,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimetres in addition to many smaller ones.

By December 2011 many pieces of the debris were in an orbital decay towards Earth and were expected to burn up in the atmosphere within one to two years. Image showing the collision path by Rlandmann on Wikipedia.


4th February 1749 Thomas Earnshaw.

English watchmaker who simplified the process of marine chronometer production, making them available to the general public. He is also known for his improvements to the transit clock at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London.

Earnshaw was asked by the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, to produce a clock for the Armagh Observatory. This clock had a number of novel features, including an airtight case designed to reduce dust and draughts. In 1794, its purchase price was £100 and Earnshaw charged £100 to travel with it to Armagh and set it up in the new Observatory.

Earnshaw is generally regarded as one of the pioneers of chronometer development. There is an Earnshaw chronometer in the Powerhouse Museum/Sydney Observatory collection. He died on 1st March 1829. Image from painting courtesy Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.

7th February 1824 (Sir) William Huggins

British astronomer best known for his pioneering work, together with his wife Margaret, in astronomical spectroscopy.

In 1864 he was the first to take the spectrum of a planetary nebula when he analysed NGC 6543. He was also the first to distinguish between nebulae and galaxies by analysing their spectra, and the first to adopt dry plate photography in imaging astronomical objects. Huggins most important innovation in the use of spectroscopy came in 1868 when he became the first to measure the radial velocity of a star using the Doppler shift of its spectral lines. This particular technical innovation would later assume profound importance in studies of the structure and evolution of the universe.

The lunar crater Huggins, the Martian crater Huggins and Asteroid 2635 Huggins are all named after him. He Died 12th May 1910. Image courtesy Linda Hall Library.

23rd February 1945 Svetlana Gerasimenko

Ukranian astronomer who co-discovered Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko with fellow Ukranian astronomer Klim Churyumov in 1969.

The comet gained fame on the 14th November 2014 when the Philae lander accomplished the first ever soft landing of a human-made spacecraft on the surface of a comet. In 1975 Svetlana was awarded a medal from the Astronomical Council of Academy of Sciences of the USSR for the "discovery of new astronomical objects".

In 1995 asteroid 3945 was named in her honour.

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