This Month in the History of Astronomy - November
- Nov 1, 1919 - Hermann Bondi, cosmologist, co-inventor of
the Steady State theory of the cosmos.
Bondi was born in Vienna, Austria, where experience at a young age
with the orthodox Jewish community left him with strong anti-religious
views, seeing it as associated with intolerance, even though he himself
was technically of Jewish descent; he described himself as "direct
hostile" to religion.
When he was sixteen the famous British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington
was visiting Vienna and Bondi was able to meet him. He decided Austria
was too much of a scientific backwater so he applied to and got admitted
to university in Cambridge the next year. As a foreign student, when
Austria became part of the pan-German Reich, Bondi was interned for
fifteen months (1940-41), but it was in Quebec, Canada. His parents
immigrated to New York, and even got Einstein to intervene on his
behalf, but he was not allowed to cross into the US. Thus he became
a British citizen and not an American.
After release from internment, he returned to academia in Great Britain
before joining Fred Hoyle's military radar development group (magnetrons,
specifically), where he worked with Tommy Gold [see May 22]. Bondi and Gold developed a cosmological theory which was
in many ways quite distinct from Hoyle's, though today the three together
are remembered as the originators of the Steady State theory during the
1947-53 period, even though cosmologies with somewhat similar aspects
had been around for decades in Great Britain, involving names such as
Eddington, Jeans, Millikan, Nernst, and Milne.
- Nov 2, 1885 - Harlow Shapley, American pioneer in determining
distances to stars, clusters, and the center of the Milky Way; Harvard
College Observatory director for many years.
Early in his career (1911-14) he was Henry Norris Russell's assistant
at Princeton, working on eclipsing binary stars. Nearly 10,000
photo-polarimeter measurements on some 90 such systems with the
23" refractor led to great advances in the understanding of very
close double stars. He was also able to show that Cepheid variable
stars are pulsating single stars, not double stars.
After seven years at the Mount Wilson Observatory, he moved to
Harvard, becoming directory of the observatory there for the next
31 years. At Mount Wilson he began studying the variable stars in
globular star clusters known as RR Lyrae variables (after the
prototype). With these he was eventually able to determine distances
to the clusters, showing that the Sun wasn't at the center of a
flattened star system some 10,000 light years in diameter (as
Kapteyn's 1923 model had it), but that the center of the system
of globular star clusters was some 60,000 light years away (high
by ~2x because he didn't take interstellar extinction and the
dimming of starlight into account, which makes things look farther
away than they are), in the direction of what we now take as being
the center of the Milky Way galaxy in Sagittarius.
- Nov 5, 1906 - Fred Whipple, developer of the dirty snowball
model for comets. After an education at UCLA, a teaching fellowship at
UC/Berkeley, and a Ph.D. at Lick Observatory (1931), Whipple moved
to Harvard and became a full professor by 1950, a post he held until
retirement 27 years later. During WWII he worked on radar for the
Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was also Director
of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1955 to 1973.
Whipple discovered six new comets, and worked on a number of related
subjects, from the connection between comets and meteors, to the
determination of cometary orbits, and the formation of solar systems.
- Nov 8, 1656 - Edmund Halley, multi-talented English scientist
best known for first determining the orbit of the comet which bears his
name, and for encouraging Isaac Newton to publish his famous work on
calculus, gravity, and the laws of motion. He also discovered (1718)
that some of the "fixed stars" actually had what's called "proper
motion", meaning they're not stationary ("fixed") after all.
- Nov 9, 1934 - Carl Sagan, U.S. astronomer, planetologist,
exobiologist, and popularizer of science and astronomy during the
Space Age, (and novelist) and arguably the most famous and well
known scientist of about the last third of the twentieth century.
- Nov 10, 1843 - The Cincinnati Observatory, the first
professional observatory in the U.S., is dedicated and its cornerstone
laid by former President John Quincy Adams. It featured a 12" refractor
and went into astronomical operation in January 1845.
- Nov 11, 1875 - Vesto Slipher, pioneer American observer.
Using mainly the 60" and 100" telescopes on Mt. Wilson he was the
first to photograph galaxy spectra and measure their redshifts, which
led to the discovery of the expansion of the universe by Hubble. By
1925 Slipher had compiled redshifts for 44 galaxies, which Hubble
added distance determinations to, leading to the development of his
famed distance-redshift relationship (Hubble's Law), as well as the
idea of an expanding universe.
Slipher spent his career at the Lowell Observatory, where he was
acting or actual Director from 1916 until retiring in 1952. He was
behind the search for Pluto which led to its discovery by Clyde
Tombaugh in 1930. His other work centered on determining the
rotation rate of the planets, and his result for featureless
Venus, based on spectral Doppler shifts, is basically the modern
value. This same technique is used to determine the rotation
curves (and masses) of galaxies. For all the planets outward
from Venus except Neptune he had a rotation rate he'd measured.
Slipher also worked on gaseous nebulae in the Milky Way, the
interstellar calcium absorption lines in stellar spectra, and
was the first to show that the nebulosity around the Pleiades
star cluster was reflected starlight, due to its hot, B-type
stellar spectrum -- same as its brightest stars.
- Nov 13, 1831 - James Clerk Maxwell, English pioneer
theoretician in electromagnetism and the nature of light.
- Nov 15, 1738 - William Herschel, British astronomer
and musician, the discoverer of the planet Uranus (1781), the
motion of the Sun in the Milky Way (1785), Castor's binary
companion (1804, and in accordance with Kepler's Laws), and
infrared radiation. Herschel also discovered many clusters,
nebulae, and galaxies in the course of surveying the night sky
and compiling catalogues whose basic data is still in use today.
- Nov 16, 1717 - Jean-Baptiste d'Alembert, French
mathematician, physicist, and theoretical astronomer who worked
out an early theory of refraction (1740) from considering models
of fluids, invented the field of differential equations, and
was the first, along with Lagrange and Laplace, to apply
principles of calculus to celestial mechanics.
- Nov 18, 1897 - Patrick Blackett, British physicist who
won the 1948 Nobel Prize for the invention of the cloud chamber,
with which he obtained the first photograph (1924) of an atomic
transmutation -- nitrogen bombarded with alpha particles turning
By 1932 his cloud chamber was automatically recording cosmic rays,
and the next year he confirmed the existence of the positron (the
anti-electron or positive electron, e+). Several years
later his cosmic ray studies turned up the first 'strange' particles,
such as the hyperon, with lifetimes of only 10-10 seconds;
moving at almost the speed of light, a particle such as this would
only travel an inch before decaying into other particles. Blackett
also confirmed Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation by being
the first to observe partice-antiparticle pair creation by energetic
cosmic gamma rays.
- Nov 18, 1915 - General Relativity. On this date Einstein
addressed the Prussian Academy of Sciences with his new, comprehensive
theory and announced the solution to the mystery of the perihelion
advance of Mercury's orbit, the result of a minute amount of spacetime
curvature so close to the Sun.
- Nov 20, 1889 - Edwin Hubble, American astronomer who first
identified Cepheid variables in M31, establishing the extragalactic
nature of the spiral nebulae (galaxies). Building on work by Carl
Wirtz, and with Slipher's redshifts (see above),
Hubble established the velocity-distance relation for galaxies
(Hubble's Law) which demonstrates the universe's expansion.
Discoveries and other firsts
- Nov 1, 1977 - Charles Kowal discovers Chiron, the first
of a population of smallish icy objects residing in the outer solar
- Nov 2, 1917 - First light for the Mt. Wilson 100"
- Nov 3, 1955 - A woman in the U.S. is struck by a
falling meteorite, one of the few well-documented instances
of this having happened.
- Nov 3, 1957 - First Earth life in space: the "Muttnik"
is launched aboard the USSR's Sputnik 2 and dies in orbit.
- Nov 4, 2019 - The first star ever detected with a
velocity much greater than the Milky Way's escape velocity --
to be in the process of being flung out of the galaxy by a close
encounter with the massive black hole at its center nearly five
million years ago -- is announced by an Australian team using
the 3.9-meter telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory. From
the abstract for their paper:
We present the serendipitous discovery of the fastest
main-sequence hyper-velocity star (HVS) by the Southern Stellar
Stream Spectroscopic Survey (S5). The star S5-HVS1 is a ∼2.35 M⊙
A-type star located at a distance of ∼9 kpc from the Sun and has
a heliocentric radial velocity of 1017 ± 2.7 kms−1 without any
signature of velocity variability. The current 3D velocity of
the star in the Galactic frame is 1755 ± 50 kms−1. When integrated
backwards in time, the orbit of the star points unambiguously to
the Galactic Centre, implying that S5-HVS1 was kicked away from
Sgr A* with a velocity of ∼1800 kms−1 and travelled for 4.8 Myr
to its current location. This is so far the only HVS confidently
associated with the Galactic Centre. S5-HVS1 is also the first
hyper-velocity star to provide constraints on the geometry and
kinematics of the Galaxy, such as the Solar motion Vy,⊙ = 246.1
± 5.3 kms−1 or position R0 = 8.12 ± 0.23 kpc.
S5-HVS1 is the third-fastest star on record, the two others
having been accelerated by supernovae explosions. It will be
nearly 100 million years before S5-HVS1 leaves the Milky Way,
even at this high a velocity.
- Nov 5, 2018 - The Voyager 2 spacecraft reaches the heliopause
and makes the transition into interstellar space, its plasma detector
registering a sharp decrease in the speed of solar wind particles.
Around the same time it saw a sharp increase in the number of cosmic
ray particles, as well as an increase in the ambient magnetic field.
Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause into interstellar space more than half
a dozen years earlier (see Aug 25, 2012)
but its plasma detector had failed back in 1980 so the transition was
not as distinct. Both spacecraft are expected to continue operating
and sending back data for another 5-10 years.
- Nov 6, 1572 - Tycho Brahe records a bright new star -- now
known to have been a supernova -- in Cassiopeia, "visible" today only
at very long, radio wavelengths. The SN was visible to the unaided eye
-- the telescope not having been invented yet -- for 16 months (until
March 1574), and was visible during the daytime, reaching a maximum
brightness estimated at mag -4.0 (almost as bright as Venus). In 1934
Walter Baade re-analyzed Tycho's data and concluded the light curve
was that of a Type I supernova.
- Nov 7, 1631 - French astronomer Pierre Gassendi becomes
the first to witness a transit of Mercury (across the Sun).
- Nov 8, 1985 - Stephen Edberg, then serving as the
Coordinator for Amateur Observations at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, and Charles Morris were the first to observe Halley's
Comet with the naked eye at its 1986 apparition.
- Nov 12, 1782 - Eighteen year-old John Goodricke of York,
England, begins the first systematic observations of the star Algol
(β Persei), by chance during one of its eclipses. He was working
off a list of suspected variable stars put together by friend and
mentor Edward Pigott, who had been comparing Flamsteed's newest star
maps with older maps going back to antiquity, looking for stars that
might have changed in brightness. At the time, only Mira (ο
Ceti), with an eleven month period, was known to be variable, and for
centuries the stars had been believed to be fixed and unvarying.
Observing every clear night possible, Goodricke and Pigott were not
able to see another eclipse until Dec 28th. They soon determined the
dip in brightness from second magnitude to fourth or fifth magnitude
lasted seven hours and occurred every 2 days 20 hours and 45 seconds.
Both Goodricke and Pigott interpreted the light curve as being due
to an eclipsing planet in orbit about the star, and roughly
half its size, not a companion star, but after the observation was
confirmed by William Herschel, in May, 1783, a controversey arose:
spots on the sun had been known for 175 years, but no other planetary
systems or binary stars were definitively known, so the conservative
view held that Algol was a heavily spotted star, light on one side
and dark on the other, which rotated. Goodricke was eventually
persuaded that it must be so. It would be more than a century before
his original explanation about the eclipsing nature of the system was
confirmed by spectroscopy.
The next year, 1784, Goodricke and Pigott turned up three more
variable stars: β Lyrae (another eclipsing system) and the
first two Cepheid variables, δ Cephei (the prototype) and
Unfortunately for both himself and astronomy, Goodricke, who was deaf
and suffered from other ailments, would only live until Apr 20, 1786,
just two weeks after being elected to membership in the Royal Society.
Pigott would go on to discover two more variable stars, R Coronae
Borealis and R Scutti, thus establishing the reality, with John
Goodricke, of a new class of stars of variable brightness.
- Nov 12, 1949 -The first scientific observations were
made with the Palomar 5-meter (200-inch) telescope.
- Nov 12, 1980 - Voyager 1 makes its closest approach
to Saturn before heading out of the solar system.
- Nov 12/13, 1833 - The night of the Great Meteor
Shower (Leonid). On the morning of 11/17/1967 a rate of
150,000/hour for ~20 minutes was reported -- the last time
there's been such a high rate for the Leonid shower.
- Nov 13, 1970 - First ever detection of a neutrino
The neutrino comes in, invisibly, from about the 4 o'clock direction,
and hits the proton (hydrogen nucleus) which is already moving in the
11 o'clock direction because of its thermal motion; as part of a
neutral hydrogen atom (or molecule) it is not previously visible.
This bubble chamber photo also demonstrates another aspect of
particle physics: fermions (the two mesons) are always created
- Nov 13, 1971 - The U.S.'s Mariner 9 becomes the first
spaceprobe to orbit Mars. 7,000+ images, some of which showed
features like those on earth associated with running water,
suggested that at some time in the past -- 3½-4 billion
years ago is the current best estimate -- Mars had a much denser
atmosphere and a warmer climate, since liquid water can't exist
- Nov 14, 2003 - 90377 Sedna is discovered by Palomar's
QUEST (Quasar Equatorial Survey Team) -- a mosaic of 112 CCD
detectors covering a 4° x 4° field of view of the 48"
Schmidt telescope -- that has discovered some 40 Kuiper Belt
- Nov 15, 1968 - R.B.E. Lovelace and associates observe
the pulsar NP 0532 in Taurus with the 305-meter Arecibo radio
telescope and determine its position to be within 10 arc-minutes
of the center of the Crab Nebula (M1), the remnant of the supernova
observed in 1054 A.D.
Because lower frequency radio waves are slowed a tiny bit by free
electrons in the interstellar medium (trapped in the galaxy's
magnetic field) between us and the pulsar, it's possible to
estimate its distance from the relative delay of its pulses
at one frequency relative to another. This distance was in line
with estimates of the distance to M1.
Along with another pulsar previously found that was near the
center of the radio source Vela X, which has a broken up shell-like
or bubble appearance at visual wavelengths and had been hypothesized
to perhaps be an older, larger, and more evolved supernova remnant,
less than a year after the first pulsar was discovered this was the
start of the idea that they were the stellar remnants of supernovae
explosions, though at that time their nature was unknown and they
were thought to maybe pulsating stars of some sort rather than
rotating highly magnetized neutron stars.
- Nov 16, 1974 - The new surface of the giant 1000-foot
radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, is dedicated by sending
a brief message in the direction of the half million or so stars
in the globular cluster M13.
- Nov 17, 1970 - Luna 17 is the 1st wheeled vehicle to
land on the moon.
- Nov 18, 1989 - Launch of the COBE (COsmic Background
Explorer) satellite aboard a Delta rocket into a polar,
sun-synchronous orbit. By April 23, 1992, the COBE team had acquired
sufficient data (~10 months) to detect and announce the anisotropy
in the 3° cosmic microwave background, at the level of only one
part in 100,000 of its absolute brightness, which won the Physics
Nobel Prize in 2006 for Smoot and Mather, two of the mission
instrument designers and principal investigators.
COBE also made important measurements and discoveries relating to the
diffuse infrared background (w/DIRBE - the Diffuse InfraRed Background
Experiment), which showed that the interplanetary dust responsible for
the zodiacal light is likely of asteroidal (and/or cometary) origin.
These measurement also determined that the sun's orbit around the
Milky Way galaxy is such that the sun is currently 15.6 parsecs (51
light years) above the midplane of the disk. Stars like the sun in
nearly circular orbits around the galaxy do not follow Keplerian
orbits, and are thought to oscillate up and down through the midplane
several times per orbit.
- Nov 19, 1816 - Though he did not write up the report
until 1820, Carl Wolfgang Benjamin Goldschmidt calls attention to
the "shadow bands" visible just before and after totality at some
total solar eclipses. The earliest known record of these goes
back to the Volospa, part of the old German poetic edda from the
- Nov 19, 1962 - The first interplanetary radio message,
the so-called Mir Message, was sent from a radar dish in the
Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) towards Venus, in Morse
- Nov 20, 2010 - The launch of NASA's NanoSail-D2, a
low Earth orbit satellite which tested solar sail technology by
unfurling one with an area of 10 square meters, on Jan 20, 2011.
The satellite re-entered the atmosphere on Sep 17, 2011.
- Nov 21, 1862 -- Warren de la Rue makes the first
photograph of a solar eclipse (partial), but had to go all the
way to Antarctica to do it.
- Nov 21, 2009 - The Cassini spacecraft first sees
erupting geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
- Nov 23, 1885 - The first photograph of a meteor shower
- Nov 23, 1949 - Walter Baade images the area around
SN 1572 (Tycho's Supernova) with the new 200-inch telescope on
Mt. Palomar. His red sensitive plates showed nebulosity on the
E edge of where the remnant was expected to be (based on its
not very precise radio position), but he didn't report its
detection after concluding what he saw was too far away in
angular distance to be related to Tycho's Star. Credit for
the discovery of the remnant, in 1952, thus goes to Hanbury
Brown and Hazard at the Jodrell Bank radio observatory; 3C 10
is the second brightest radio source in the constellation
Cassiopeiae, and Cas A (the brightest) is the brightest radio
source in the sky outside the solar system.
- Nov 23, 1977 - Meteosat 1 becomes the first satellite
put into orbit by the European Space Agency (ESA).
- Nov 26, 1965 - First French satellite launch --
- Nov 26, 2019 - The red super-giant star Betelgeuse
drops below magnitude 1.0, dimming to magnitude 1.7 by early
February 2020. The star, known to be irregularly variable
since at least the time of John Herschel (c.1840), had briefly
dipped as low as 1.2, in 1927 and 1941, so this is the dimmest
it's been in historical times, though the exact cause remains
Experts at Vanderbilt University who had monitored the star for
decades say Betelgeuse hit a minimum visual magnitude of 1.614
±0.008 from Feb 7-13, 2020, before returning over the next
several weeks to a more normal brightness around magnitude ½.
They say the dimming was a confluence of a 425-day cycle and a
5.9-year cycle. Infrared observers say the star's brightness in
the IR has remained rock constant over the last five decades.
Observation in the ultraviolet by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope
indicate an immense amount of hot material was ejected into space
by the star, at a velocity of 90 km/sec, forming a dust cloud when
it cooled and elements like carbon condensed into grains that blocked
starlight coming from the star's surface. This would essentially be
over-shoot from the upwelling of a large convection cell originating
deeper within the star. The resulting dust cloud blocked light from
about a quarter of the star's surface. Observations made with NASA's
Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) show that Betelgeuse
dimmed again, though not as dramatically, from mid-May to mid-July
- Nov 27, 1885 - The first known photograph of a meteor,
taken by Austro-Hungarian astronomer Ladislaus Weinek during the
Andromedid shower, which showed spectacular displays of several
thousand meteors per hour in both 1872 and 1885, with some estimates
ranging as high as 20,000 per hour.
The shower is associated with Comet Biela/3D, the third periodic
comet to be discovered (on Feb 26, 1826), after Halley's and Encke's
comets. It was then linked by Gambart to a comet seen in 1805. The
great mathematician and physicist Gauss, with the improved orbit,
then linked it to a 1772 comet seen by Montaigne and Messier. It was
the first comet seen to fission into several pieces, in 1845 at the
Yale Observatory. The largest surviving fragment was last seen in
1852, and was thus the first comet to acquire the "D" designation,
for "lost" (or "dead").
Though the Andromedid shower has been sparse or nearly defunct
since the late nineteenth century, it is thought to consist of
several streams, and predictions pop up occasionally that one
of these will again become active at the rate of ~200 meteors/hour
in, say, 2023.
- Nov 27, 1971 - The Soviet Mars-2 spacecraft becomes
the first manmade object to reach (& hit) Mars.
- Nov 29, 1961 - After 1,250 hours of training, the
"astrochimp" Enos becomes the first living creature put into
orbit by the U.S., aboard Mercury-Atlas 5. The mission lasted
3 hours, 21 minutes -- about 2½ orbits -- before parachuting
down to the Atlantic Ocean. This test launch paved the way for
the U.S.'s first manned orbital flight three months later.
- Nov 29, 1967 - First Australian satellite launch --
- Nov 30, 1954 - Elizabeth Hodges is hit by a 5 kg
meteorite in Alabama.
©2002-2021, Chris Wetherill. All rights reserved. Display here does
NOT constitute or imply permission to copy, republish, or redistribute
my work in any manner for any purpose without prior written permission.
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