In this month: May 2022

Historical astronomical events, and people who were born this month and have influenced our understanding of the cosmos.

18th May 1991

Helen Sharman becomes the first British citizen to go into space in a mission to the Soviet space station Mir. Sharman received a degree in chemistry from the University of Sheffield in 1984. In November 1989 she responded to a radio advertisement for astronauts and was selected from more than 13,000 applicants to be part of Project Juno, a commercial British cosmonaut mission.

After undergoing eighteen months of rigorous training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, Russia she launched into space as a research cosmonaut on board Soyuz TM-12 with two Soviet cosmonauts, Commander Anatoly Artsebarsky and flight engineer Sergei Krikalev.

The mission lasted nearly eight days during which time Sharman conducted medical and agricultural tests. She also communicated with British schoolchildren on the radio. Sharman returned to Earth aboard Soyuz TM-11 on the 26th May 1991. (Above) Helen Sharman's official cosmonaut photograph.Credit: Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Cente

22nd May 2010

Nicolaus Copernicus is reburied by Polish priests in the 14th century cathedral at Frombork in Poland. After his death in 1543 his remains rested in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral, the exact location unknown. For over two centuries archaeologists searched the cathedral for Copernicus's remains.

In August 2005, after scanning beneath the cathedral floor, they found his remains which were positively identified by DNA testing. On 22 May 2010 Copernicus was given a second funeral by some of Poland’s highest-ranking clerics before an honour guard carried his coffin through the cathedral and lowered it back into the same spot where part of his skull and other bones were found. A black granite tombstone engraved with a map of the solar system now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory.

(Left) Grave of Nicolaus Copernicus in the Frombork Cathedral, Holger Weinhandt.

25th May 2012

The members of the Square Kilometre Array Advisory Committee agree on a dual site for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope with Australia and South Africa being selected. The report from the Committee noted that both sites were well suited to hosting the SKA, with South Africa being the preferred site. The SKA will be a revolutionary radio telescope made of thousands of antennas linked together. It will enable astronomers to glimpse the formation and evolution of the very first stars and galaxies after the Big Bang, find out how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, examine the role of magnetism in the cosmos, explore the nature of gravity, and search for life beyond Earth. The total collecting area of all the SKA antennas combined will be approximately one square kilometre, making the SKA the largest and most sensitive radio telescope ever built.


17th May 1858 Mary Adela Blagg.

English astronomer. A mostly self-taught astronomer Blagg was in her late 40’s when she became interested in astronomy after attending a university course. She made important contributions in two areas of astronomy, lunar nomenclature (lunar naming) and variable stars. In 1905 she was appointed by the newly formed International Association of Academies to compile a list of all lunar features. Several major lunar maps of the period had discrepancies in naming various features on the Moon. Her work uncovered a long list of discrepancies that the Association would need to resolve. She also performed considerable work on variable stars.

On the 28th March 1906 Blagg was elected to the British Astronomical Association, and in January 1916 she was elected as a Fellow to the Royal Astronomical Society being among the first women to become Fellows of that society. The crater Blagg on the Moon is named after her. (Above) Portrait of Mary Adela Blagg, unknown photographer.

6th May 1872 Willem de Sitter.

Dutch astronomer, physicist and mathematician. De Sitter made major contributions to the field of physical cosmology. He co-authored a paper with Albert Einstein in 1932 which discussed the implications of cosmological data for the curvature of the universe. De Sitter’s concept differed from Einstein’s who envisioned the universe as static and unchanging in size, but de Sitter maintained the universe was constantly expanding, a view later supported by Edwin Hubble’s observations of distant galaxies and was eventually adopted by Einstein himself. He was also famous for his research on the motions of the moons of Jupiter.

In his early career he analysed the motions of Jupiter’s four great Galilean satellites to determine their masses. The crater De Sitter on the Moon and Asteroid 1686 De Sitter are named after him.

Photograph left courtesy University of Chicago.

3rd May 1909 James Stanley Hey.

English physicist and radio astronomer. During the second world war while working on investigating the jamming of British radar by German forces he discovered that the "rushing noises" thought to be jamming signals were actually from a sunspot. This discovery led him to further study the Sun as a source of radio emission, advancing the science of radio astronomy. He found the Sun radiates radio waves. He also localised for the first time an extragalactic radio source in the constellation Cygnus. The Asteroid 22473 Stanleyhey, discovered in 1997, is named in his honour.