Pioneering Female Astronomers - Happy Women's Day from Under Lucky Stars!

Why did Prime Minister Modi in India hand over his social media accounts to seven women activists? Why, to celebrate International Women’s Day of course!

All around the world yesterday on Sunday the 8th of March, millions of people took part in marches, protests and celebrations to mark International Women’s Day, 2020. The theme was “Each for Equality” and the events drew attention to women’s rights, gender equality and more.

Here, at Under Lucky Stars, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to commemorate some of our pioneering women astronomers who helped us understand the stars today. Happy Women’s Day everyone!

Caroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel was a German astronomer who made significant discoveries in the field of astronomy. Most importantly, she was the first woman to discover a comet, all the way back in 1786! She also discovered the new nebulae Andromeda and Cetus. Together with her older brother William Herschel they went on to discover 14 more nebulae. One of her discovered comets is named after her (and Roger Rigollet): the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. This stellar brother-sister team made huge progress in the field of advancing our understanding of the stars.

Nancy Grace Roman

Nancy Grace Women is one of our most inspiring female astronomers. Known as the “Mother of the Hubble Telescope” she crusaded for NASA to invest in and develop orbiting space telescopes, such as the Hubble. She dreamed of being an astronomer as a girl – and back in the 1930’s this was not your average career path! She fulfilled her childhood dream and became NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy back in 1949, paving the way for millions of girls to come.

Celia Payne-Gaposchkin

In 1924 one woman discovered the answer to one of the biggest questions in astronomy: “What are stars made of?”. Celia Payne-Gaposchkin was a British-American astronomer and a brilliant academic. After getting a PhD in astronomy from the University of Cambridge, Massachusits, she went on to become the first female full professor at Harvard, she. Her revolutionary discover that stars are made of mostly helium and hydrogen forever changed the course of astronomy.

Mary Somerville

Did you know that a scientists was once referred to as “Philosophers” or as a “man of science”? Until Mary Somerville came around! Thought of as the first woman scientists Mary Somerville was Scottish mathematician, geographer, polymath and astronomer. Not only did she write one of the most important science books of the time “On the Connexions of the Physical Sciences”, she also fought for women’s civil rights and education.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

The American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt famously discovered the relationship between time and luminosity in Cepheid variable stars. One of the “Harvard Computers” her findings allowed astronomers to measure stellar distances and revolutionized the field.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

While Jocelyn Bell Burnell was famously denied a share in the Nobel Prize for physics in 1974, she is a much-lauded and awarded Irish astronomer and astrophysicist. As a student as Cambridge University, she discovered the radio pulsar in 1967 (for which she was later denied recognition). Like many astronomers, her passion for the stars was ignited through visits to her nearest Planetarium (in her case, in Armagh, Northern Ireland).

Carolyn S. Shoemaker

Carolyn S. Shoemaker was an American astronomer who once held the record for most comets discovered by an individual and but still holds it among women. She found 32 comets and more than 800 asteroids! Most importantly, together with her husband Eugene and David H. Levy she discovered the comet now known as Shoemaker-Levy 9. This was the comet that famously hit Jupiter in 1994.

Maria Mitchell

Have you heard of “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”? Well, now you know where that name came from! Maria Mitchell was the first American female astronomer who discovered the comet now in her name all the way back in 1847. She was also a huge pioneer of women’s education and as a female professor in astronomy, fought for an equal salary to her male colleagues (and got it!). She once said to her students:

When we are chafed and fretted by small cares, a look at the stars will show us the littleness of our own interests.

Words that still ring true today!

Vera Cooper Rubin

Imagine having a crater on Mars (the Vera Hubin ridge in the Gale crater) and an asteroid (the 5726 Rubin) named after you, and an observatory built in your honour (the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile)? Vera Cooper Rubin was fascinated by the stars all her life and she used to stargaze from her bedroom window as a young girl. Her revolutionary observations lead to new discoveries and understanding of dark matter in the Universe.

Did we leave anyone out? If you have any pioneering female astronomers you would like to applaud, we would love to add them to this list!

Let’s end on some wise words from Maria Mitchell:

Do not look at stars as bright spots only. Try to take in the vastness of the universe.

Think of that next time you look at your star map, or better yet, at the night sky tonight!

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