FirstLight Astronomy Club

33°29.6'N / 117°06.8'W / 1190 ft.

Maria Mitchell, Pioneer in Astronomy

Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer who died on this date in 1889. Now, normally this just might be a footnote in history, and for most people it is. Except for this: Maria Mitchell was a woman and she was an astronomer. Those two qualities in one person were something quite extraordinary over hundred years ago.

Maria's parents were Quakers in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Quakers had this crazy notion for the time that children, both boys and girls, should be afforded equal education. Her father, William Mitchell, noticed his daughter was strong in the areas of math and astronomy and so encouraged her to pursue them. Go figure!

This love for learning and education persisted as she assisted her dad in his teaching and then took on the role of librarian in Nantucket. But even as a librarian, her passion for astronomy continued.

On the night of October 1, 1847, armed with telescope, Maria was on the roof of the Pacific National Bank on Main Street in Nantucket where her father then worked. The 29-year-old Maria scanned the northern skies and saw there a blurry object that she knew was not normally amongst those stars. Those of you who do any backyard astronomy know that when you see a blurry object in a part of the sky that you know has no blurry objects, that you have probably just found a comet.

And a comet it was.

This seemingly small discovery of "Miss Mitchell's Comet" had an extraordinary effect on her future. Just the next year the American Academy of Arts and Sciences voted her in as their first woman member. (There was not another woman voted in until 1943.) In 1850, the Association for the Advancement of Science voted her into their organization.

By 1865 she ended up, to no one's surprise, as an educator, taking on the position of Professor of Astronomy at the brand new Vassar College in New York State. There she not only taught, but studied the surface features of Jupiter and Saturn and practiced the new art of astrophotography.

She worked at Vassar for more than two decades, retiring only because of ill health. She died on 28 June 1889, at the age of 70, and was buried next to her beloved father.

Maria Mitchell's life can show us at least two things; that good parents can play a huge and wonderful role in shaping a child's future, and that the love and wonder of the skies ought not be limited by one's gender - the study of the heavens is for everyone.

For a Summer Vacation, Just Look Up

Summer is finally here. Some of us are now planning out vacation routes. Others, for one reason or another, are just staying home this year. One way or another, wherever we go, near or far, we can always get away from it all by looking up.

Maybe this summer can be your summer of discovery, the one you've always wanted to make, but never "got around to." And there are all kinds of things in the summer night skies that are worthy of discovering.

One trip you can take is to go out and observe the planets. In the western skies after sunset you can watch Venus reach her highest point this month then slowly make her way towards the horizon as summer breezes by. If you have a telescope, these are good weeks to see Venus' phase changes, as well.

Both Saturn and Mars are headed for a late July rendezvous with Venus. They are both now in the southwest skies in the evening. You can observe them both over the next 7-8 weeks wander closer and closer towards Venus.

The constellations can be part of your tour plans, as well. You might commit to learning where the Big Guys are, such as Hercules or Sagittarius or Scorpius or Cygnus. Or challenge yourself to seek out and conquer the more obscure constellations, like Corona Borealis, Delphinus, or the 13th member of the zodiac - Ophiuchus. Maybe you can read their mythological stories, as well, some of which are quite the soap-opera-of-the-gods type of entertainment. (Google "constellations summer skies" for star charts.)

You can also take a random trip through the heavens with a small telescope or binoculars, scanning the skies, fortuitously picking out double stars or star clusters along the way. Or, just for the sake of challenge, you can obtain a star chart (easily gotten off the internet) and, using only the charts in front of you and the stars above, look for charted star clusters or doubles or nebulae.

For some, the most challenging find will be the Summer Milky Way. The artificially lit-up skies of our locale are making this more and more of a challenge every year. (We will cover this problem in depth in a future article.) The Milky Way, our galaxy's disk, can be seen coming out of the southern horizon and heading north in a great band of light representing untold thousands of stars.

Both skyandtelescope.com and astronomy.com have a load of reference guides and hints to help you get to know our summer dome. Commit to some sort of tour this year. It's inexpensive - and fun!
Temecula Valley High School / Temecula, CA · Some images © Gemini Observatory/AURA Contact Me