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  • Elizabeth Cocking

In this month: October


1st October 1958

NASA becomes operational. As a result of the space race between USA and the Soviet Union in the 1950’s NASA was established in 1958, succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency had a civilian orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space science. Since its establishment, most USA space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo Moon missions, the Skylab space station, and the Space Shuttle.

NASA also does work in astronomy with its goal in astrophysics to "discover how the universe works, explore how it began and evolved, and search for life on planets around other stars”.

NASA’s Headquarters is in Washington, USA. The agency has nine centres, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and seven test and research facilities located in several states around the country. The administrator in charge of NASA is nominated by the President of the USA and confirmed by a vote in the Senate.

7th October 1959

Soviet spacecraft, Luna 3, is the first ever mission to photograph the far side of the Moon. Though it returned rather poor pictures by today’s standards, the historic, never-before-seen views of the far side of the Moon caused excitement and interest when they were published around the world. Image of Luna 3 model by Armael - Own work, CC0,

A total of 29 pictures were taken. The first picture was taken at a distance of 63,500 km from the Moon, and the last picture was taken 40 minutes later from a distance of 66,700 km. The views showed mountainous terrain, very different from the near side, and only two dark, low-lying regions which were named Mare Moscoviense (Sea of Moscow) and Mare Desiderii (Sea of Desire). Attempts to transmit the pictures to the Soviet Union began on the 8th October 1959 but the early attempts were unsuccessful due to the low signal strength. As Luna 3 drew closer to Earth, a total of about 17 viewable but poor-quality photographs were transmitted. All contact with the probe was lost on the 22nd October 1959.

29th October 2018

The Parker Solar Probe becomes the closest ever artificial object to approach the Sun passing the previous record of 42.73 million kilometres set by the Helios 2 spacecraft in April 1976. As the Parker Solar Probe mission progresses, the spacecraft will repeatedly break its own records with a final close approach of 6.2 million km from the sun’s surface expected in 2024.

The spacecraft, which launched on the 12th August 2018, is named after astrophysicist Eugene Parker, who predicted the existence of the solar wind in 1958. The Parker Solar Probe is the first NASA mission to be named after a living person.


6th October 1732

Nevil Maskelyne

Maskelyne was ordained a minister in 1755, but his interest in astronomy was aroused by the annular solar eclipse of 25th July 1748. In 1758 he was admitted to the Royal Society of London, which in 1761 sent him to the island of St. Helena to observe a transit of Venus. During the voyage he experimented with the determination of longitude by observations of the Moon’s position and introduced this method into navigation by publishing The British Mariner’s Guide. He was also the first person to scientifically measure the mass of the Earth.

In 1765 he became the fifth Astronomer Royal succeeding Nathaniel Bliss an office he held until 1811. The lunar crater Maskelyne in the Sea of Tranquility is named after him.

The portrait is by R. Page, 1815 and courtesy of the Wellcome Trust, creative commons.

26th October 1902

Henrietta Hill Swope, American astronomer.

While working with Harlow Shapley at Harvard, she learned that he was offering fellowships for women to work on finding variable stars. Swope went to work for Shapley in 1926 and began working alongside other "girls" to identify variable stars in the Milky Way.

Swope became friends with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Adelaide Ames. In 1928 she obtained Masters in Astronomy from Radcliffe College.

She is photographed examining stars captured by photography on a glass plate negative.

The Asteroid 2168 Swope is named in her honour.

5th October 1958

Neil deGrasse Tyson. American astrophysicist, cosmologist, planetary scientist, author, and science communicator. Since 1996, he has been the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Centre for Earth and Space in New York City. The centre is part of the American Museum of Natural History, where Tyson founded the Department of Astrophysics in 1997 and has been a research associate in the department since 2003.

He has a great talent for presenting complex concepts in a clear and accessible manner. In 2015 The U.S. National Academy of Sciences awarded him the Public Welfare Medal for his "extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science".

Neil deGrasse Tyson visited Sydney Observatory in 2014 to launch his Cosmos series - he is photographed here with Toner Stevenson and Michael Parry.


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