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kottke.org posts about astronomy

Arctic Midnight Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2022

This 360° time lapse video, filmed by meteorologist Witek Kaszkin in 2015, follows the never-setting Sun in a 24-hour trip around the sky above the Arctic Circle as the icy Arctic landscape is bathed in constant summer sunlight.

See also — and I may be burying the lede here — Kaszkin’s video of a total solar eclipse filmed from the same location. Wow. (via the kid should see this)

Mars Helicopter Spots Perseverance Rover’s Landing Debris

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 28, 2022

wreckage from the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars

wreckage from the landing of NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars

On the 26th flight of Ingenuity, NASA’s helicopter on Mars, it spotted and photographed the wreckage of the Perseverance rover’s landing gear, protective shell, and parachute. From a NY Times article on the photos:

“There’s definitely a sci-fi element to it,” Ian Clark, an engineer who worked on Perseverance’s parachute system, said of photographs released on Wednesday. “It exudes otherworldly, doesn’t it?”

Part of the reason NASA had Ingenuity go take a look is to see how all of that equipment held up during the landing process. Data from the photos will inform future missions.

“Perseverance had the best-documented Mars landing in history, with cameras showing everything from parachute inflation to touchdown,” said JPL’s Ian Clark, former Perseverance systems engineer and now Mars Sample Return ascent phase lead. “But Ingenuity’s images offer a different vantage point. If they either reinforce that our systems worked as we think they worked or provide even one dataset of engineering information we can use for Mars Sample Return planning, it will be amazing. And if not, the pictures are still phenomenal and inspiring.”

In the images of the upright backshell and the debris field that resulted from it impacting the surface at about 78 mph (126 kph), the backshell’s protective coating appears to have remained intact during Mars atmospheric entry. Many of the 80 high-strength suspension lines connecting the backshell to the parachute are visible and also appear intact. Spread out and covered in dust, only about a third of the orange-and-white parachute — at 70.5 feet (21.5 meters) wide, it was the biggest ever deployed on Mars — can be seen, but the canopy shows no signs of damage from the supersonic airflow during inflation. Several weeks of analysis will be needed for a more final verdict.

It is really remarkable, the images we’re seeing from Mars, taken by a robotic helicopter.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sees Solar Eclipse on Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 20, 2022

Wow, NASA just released a video shot by the Mars Perseverance rover of a solar eclipse by the moon Phobos. The video description calls it “the most zoomed-in, highest frame-rate observation of a Phobos solar eclipse ever taken from the Martian surface”. According to this article from JPL, the video of the eclipse is played in realtime; it only lasted about 40 seconds.

Captured with Perseverance’s next-generation Mastcam-Z camera on April 2, the 397th Martian day, or sol, of the mission, the eclipse lasted a little over 40 seconds — much shorter than a typical solar eclipse involving Earth’s Moon. (Phobos is about 157 times smaller than Earth’s Moon. Mars’ other moon, Deimos, is even smaller.)

Just a hunk of space rock passing in front of a massive burning ball of gas recorded by a robot from the surface of an extraterrestrial planet, no big deal.

High-Res View of a Martian Crater

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2022

Seán Doran strikes again. In this short flyover rendered in 8K resolution by Doran, we’re treated to a detailed look at a crater on Mars. The imagery is from the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Beautiful — worth taking a second or third pass to catch all the details.

The Highest Resolution Photo of the Sun Ever Taken

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 01, 2022

very high resolution image of the Sun

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter recently took 25 images of the Sun from a distance of 46 million miles that, when stitched all together, form the highest resolution photo of the Sun (and its corona) ever created.

The high-resolution telescope of EUI takes pictures of such high spatial resolution that, at that close distance, a mosaic of 25 individual images is needed to cover the entire Sun. Taken one after the other, the full image was captured over a period of more than four hours because each tile takes about 10 minutes, including the time for the spacecraft to point from one segment to the next.

In total, the final image contains more than 83 million pixels in a 9148 x 9112 pixel grid. For comparison, this image has a resolution that is ten times better than what a 4K TV screen can display.

You can zoom in on the image here to see how remarkably detailed it is.

How Saturn Got Its Rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2022

Within the past 100 million years, an icy moon got too close to Saturn and the planet’s gravity ripped it apart, forming the iconic rings. This clip from BBC’s The Planets details how that happened, accompanied by some amazing photography from NASA’s Cassini mission.

I got this from The Kid Should See This, who shared some ring facts:

They are younger than the dinosaurs, they form a disk wider than Jupiter that averages just 9 meters (30 feet) thick, and thanks to Cassini, we now know that there are tall peaks rising as high as 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) from the planet’s B ring.

I’ve shared this story on the site before, but seeing the rings of Saturn through my telescope in my backyard as a teenager made a massive impression on me as to the scale of the solar system and humankind’s ability to understand it through science and technology. I still can’t believe you can see those rings with a cheap telescope or binoculars. Incredible.

What If the Moon Crashes Into the Earth?

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2022

No doubt motivated by this month’s release of Moonfall, the latest movie from disaster shlockmeister Roland Emmerich, Kurzgesagt has made a video that shows what would happen to civilization should the Moon somehow get knocked from its orbit and head straight for the Earth. Spoiler: the Moon doesn’t even need to reach us to kill almost all life on the planet.

See also A Scientific Simulation of Seveneves’ Moon Disaster.

How the James Webb Space Telescope Orbits Nothing

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is designed to be positioned near one of the five Lagrange Points in the Sun/Earth system, special areas of gravitational equilibrium that keep objects stationary relative to both the Earth and the Sun. Here’s how Lagrange Points work and why they are so useful for spacecraft like the Webb.

See also What Makes Lagrange Points Special Locations In Space.

Voyage of the Moons

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2022

Space is mostly just what it says on the tin: empty space. The solar system is no exception; it’s a massive volume occupied by little more than the Sun’s mass — the mass of all the planets, moons, comets, asteroids, space dust, and stray electrons are just a bit more than a rounding error. But oh what mass it is when you get up close to it.

The NASA space probe Cassini, on its seven-year journey to Saturn, cozied up to Jupiter in December 2000 and captured a succession of images of Io and Europa passing over the Great Red Spot during the moons’ orbit of the gas giant planet. Kevin Gill turned those images into the incredible video embedded above. That we have such crisp, smooth video of two small moons orbiting a planet some 444 million miles away from Earth is something of a miracle — it looks totally rendered. Also in the video is footage of Titan orbiting Saturn — that horizontal line bisecting the frame is Saturn’s rings, edge-on.

How Does The James Webb Space Telescope Work?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope is still winging its way to its permanent home at the L2 point1 about 930,000 miles from Earth — it’s due to arrive in about 4 days. It’s a massive and fascinating project and for his YouTube series Smarter Every Day, Destin Sandlin talked to Nobel laureate John Mather, the senior project scientist for the JWST, about how the telescope works.

Also worth a watch is Real Engineering’s The Insane Engineering of James Webb Telescope:

It really is a marvel of modern science & engineering — I can’t wait to see what the telescope sees once it’s fully operational.

  1. You can read about Lagrange points here or here…they are interesting!

Powers of Ten, Updated With Current Science

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2022

Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 short film Powers of Ten is one of the best bits of science communication ever created…and a personal favorite of mine. Here’s a description of the original film:

Powers of Ten takes us on an adventure in magnitudes. Starting at a picnic by the lakeside in Chicago, this famous film transports us to the outer edges of the universe. Every ten seconds we view the starting point from ten times farther out until our own galaxy is visible only a s a speck of light among many others. Returning to Earth with breathtaking speed, we move inward — into the hand of the sleeping picnicker — with ten times more magnification every ten seconds. Our journey ends inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

As an homage, the BBC and particle physicist Brian Cox have created an updated version that reflects what we’ve learned about the universe in the 45 years since Powers of Ten was made. The new video zooms out to the limits of our current observational powers, to about 100 billion light years away, 1000X wider than in the original. (I wish they would have done the zoom in part of the video too, but maybe next year!)

And if you’d like to explore the scales of the universe for yourself, check out the Universe in a Nutshell app from Tim Urban and Kurzgesagt — you can zoom in and out as far as you want and interact with and learn about objects along the way.

A Close-Up Photo of Comet Leonard by an Amateur Astronomer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2022

Comet Leonard

Using a composite of 25 different shots done over a period of 12 minutes in his backyard, amateur astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy created this stunning image of Comet Leonard. From PetaPixel:

Processing comet images is a challenge because even in the span of 12 minutes, the comet drifts across the frame relative to the background stars,” McCarthy tells PetaPixel. “Due to the comet’s motion, it has to be stacked differently. I tell the software to stack the images based on the comet position and star positions separately, which is then combined together to produce an image with the comet and stars both sharp.

See also this image of Leonard and McCarthy’s colorful photo of a full moon.

The Northern Lights Photographer of the Year for 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 21, 2021

intense pink and yellow aurora in the night sky

light blue aurora in the sky over a group of snow flocked trees

green aurora flows over a steep mountain peak

Check out some of the best aurora borealis and aurora australis photos taken in 2021 in the results of the 2021 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year competition.1 My three favorites (embedded above) were taken by Larryn Rae, Marc Adamus, and Frøydis Dalheim. (thx, caroline)

  1. Off-topic, but I covered this contest last year and they used the same nonspecific URL for this year’s winners as they did for last year’s. Which means that last year’s winning photos are nowhere to be found and in 2022 the 2021 photos will also disappear. Don’t do this!

This Is A Film About The James Webb Space Telescope

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

In this entertaining, informative, and charmingly goofy video, Dr. Kevin Hainline tells us all about the James Webb Space Telescope. The JWST is a bigger and better version of the Hubble Space Telescope and will allow scientists to peer deeper into the universe and farther back in time than ever before.

Listen, science is hard! Engineering is hard! It’s difficult to figure out how to build an incredibly sensitive infrared detector that you have to cram together on the back of a giant, foldable, gold covered mirror, sitting on a delicate, tennis-court-sized parasol, that can survive a rocket launch! It’s hard stuff!

And hundreds and hundreds of people around the world have been working on it together. JWST is the single most complicated science project human beings have ever attempted. But it’s been worth it. Because we want to discover the earliest galaxies in the universe, and clouds on other planets, and baby star-forming regions, and debris disks around stars, and weird dwarf galaxies, and supermassive black holes!

It’s been in development for almost thirty years and everyone is really ready for it! The James Webb Space Telescope is about to change astronomy. Get ready for discovery!

I am ready and excited! The JWST is currently set to launch no earlier than Dec 24, 2021. You can follow the progress of the launch here.

See also Looking back in time with the James Webb Space Telescope (60 Minutes) and 29 Days on the Edge. Oh and scientists have been working on this project for 20 years and are (understandably) really nervous about what happens with the launch.

A NASA Spacecraft Has Touched the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2021

For the first time in human history, a spacecraft has flown through the Sun’s corona to collect data and capture samples (and, crucially, exited safely).

During the flyby, Parker Solar Probe passed into and out of the corona several times. This is proved what some had predicted — that the Alfvén critical surface isn’t shaped like a smooth ball. Rather, it has spikes and valleys that wrinkle the surface. Discovering where these protrusions line up with solar activity coming from the surface can help scientists learn how events on the Sun affect the atmosphere and solar wind.

Six panels of images taken from inside a coronal streamer. They appear grayish with white streaks showing particles in the solar wind.

At one point, as Parker Solar Probe dipped to just beneath 15 solar radii (around 6.5 million miles) from the Sun’s surface, it transited a feature in the corona called a pseudostreamer. Pseudostreamers are massive structures that rise above the Sun’s surface and can be seen from Earth during solar eclipses.

Passing through the pseudostreamer was like flying into the eye of a storm. Inside the pseudostreamer, the conditions quieted, particles slowed, and number of switchbacks dropped — a dramatic change from the busy barrage of particles the spacecraft usually encounters in the solar wind.

For the first time, the spacecraft found itself in a region where the magnetic fields were strong enough to dominate the movement of particles there. These conditions were the definitive proof the spacecraft had passed the Alfvén critical surface and entered the solar atmosphere where magnetic fields shape the movement of everything in the region.

The first passage through the corona, which lasted only a few hours, is one of many planned for the mission. Parker will continue to spiral closer to the Sun, eventually reaching as close as 8.86 solar radii (3.83 million miles) from the surface. Upcoming flybys, the next of which is happening in January 2022, will likely bring Parker Solar Probe through the corona again.

The video above provides a great overview of the origins, objectives, and motivations for the mission.

One Month of the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2021

Seán Doran took 78,846 frames of data compiled by the Solar Dynamics Observatory over the course of a month and made this absolutely fantastic time lapse of the Sun slowly rotating and burning and flaring. Put this on the biggest, high-resolution screen you can and pretend you’re in the solar observation room of the Icarus II in Sunshine.

See also A Decade of Sun and Gorgeous Time Lapse of the Sun. (via colossal)

The Sounds from Mars

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2021

For the last nine months, NASA’s Perseverance rover has been rolling around on Mars taking photos and doing science. It’s also been recording audio of its environment with a pair of microphones and in this video, a pair of NASA scientists share some of those recordings and what we might learn about Mars from them.

This is one of my absolute favorite sounds. This is the sound of a helicopter flying on Mars. We used this sound to actually understand the propagation of sound in general through the Martian atmosphere, and it turns out that we were totally wrong with our models. The Martian atmosphere can propagate sound a lot further than we thought it could.

And surprisingly for me, that’s my friend Nina in the video! (We eclipse-chased together in 2017.) I knew she was working on the rovers but didn’t know she was going to pop up in this video I found on Twitter this morning. Fun!

The Many Colors of the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2021

the Moon in 48 different colors, arranged in a spiral shape

Marcella Giulia Pace photographed the Moon in 48 different hues and arranged them in a lovely spiral pattern.

I have collected some of my Full Moon shots taken over the past 10 years. I selected the shades of color with which the Moon was filmed in front of my lens and my eyes.

The atmosphere gives different colors to our satellite (scattering) based on its height with respect to the horizon, based on the presence of humidity or suspended dust. The shape of the Moon also changes: at the bottom of the horizon, refraction compresses the lunar disk at the poles and makes it look like an ellipse.

Prints of the image are available. (via @djacobs)

Full Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2021

a full moon with a very colorful surface

The full moon was wonderful last night and Andrew McCarthy captured this colorful image of our nearest celestial companion. McCarthy explained where all those colors come from:

Back to this image, this was captured through a telescope and involved capturing thousands of frames to reveal the details. But what about the colors? The moon is gray, of course, but not *perfectly* gray. Some areas have a subtle blue tint, and others have a more orange tint. By teasing out those subtle colors, I can reveal the mineral composition of the moon! Blues denote titanium presence, while orange shows iron and feldspar present in the regolith. You can also see how impacts paint the surface with fresh color in the ejecta as they churn up material.

A print is available, but only for a very limited time (~6 more hours as of pub time).

The Astronomy Photographer of the Year for 2021

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2021

360-degree view of the Milky Way galaxy

the crescent moon rising over the desert

The Royal Museum Greenwich has announced the winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year for 2021. Zhong Wu won the galaxies category with a 360-degree view of the Milky Way (above, top), a mosaic which took two years to create — the northern hemisphere portion of the galaxy was photographed in China and the southern part in New Zealand. Jeffrey Lovelace’s photo of the crescent moon over Death Valley sand dunes (above, bottom) took the prize in the skyscapes category.

1800s Astronomical Drawings vs. Modern NASA Images

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2021

I love this post from the NYPL comparing astronomical drawings by E.L. Trouvelot done in the 1870s to contemporary NASA images.

Trouvelot was a French immigrant to the US in the 1800s, and his job was to create sketches of astronomical observations at Harvard College’s observatory. Building off of this sketch work, Trouvelot decided to do large pastel drawings of “the celestial phenomena as they appear…through the great modern telescopes.”

He made drawings of Saturn, Jupiter, aurora borealis, the Milky Way, and more. Here’s his incredible drawing of sun spots compared to a recent image of the Sun’s surface:

a drawing of sun spots

the sun

And his drawing of a solar eclipse compared to a recent image:

a drawing of a total solar eclipse

modern photo of a solar eclipse

Check out the post for more examples of Trouvelot’s work.

Size Comparison: The Largest Black Hole in the Universe

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2021

Black holes are the largest single objects in the universe, many times larger than even the biggest stars, and have no upper limit to their size. But practically, how big is the biggest, heaviest black hole in the universe? (A: More massive than the entire Milky Way.)

The largest things in the universe are black holes. In contrast to things like planets or stars they have no physical size limit, and can literally grow endlessly. Although in reality specific things need to happen to create different kinds of black holes, from really tiny ones to the largest single things in the universe. So how do black holes grow and how large is the largest of them all?

Videos about space are where Kurzgesagt really shines. I’ve seen all their videos about black holes and related objects, and I always pick up something I never knew whenever a new one comes out. This time around, it was quasistars and the surprisingly small mass of supermassive black holes located at galactic centers compared to the galaxies themselves.

The 2021 Astronomy Photographer of the Year Shortlist

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 02, 2021

solar flares shooting off the surface of the Sun

panorama of the aurora borealis in the winter

panorama of the Milky Way over a lavender field

The Royal Museums Greenwich has announced the shortlist for the 2021 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. I’ve included a few favorites above (by Andrew McCarthy, Larryn Rae, and Stefan Liebermann) but you can check out the rest on their site. (via curious about everything)

“If It Doesn’t Shine In Your Face, You Don’t See Anything”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 28, 2021

Jocelyn Bell Burnell as a graduate student

As I’ve written before, in the history of astronomy and astrophysics, women have made major discoveries and played a significant role in advancing our understanding of the universe but have often not gotten the recognition their male peers enjoy. In 1967, while she was working on her doctoral research with her advisor Antony Hewish, Jocelyn Bell Burnell (then Jocelyn Bell) discovered a new and unusual kind of object, the pulsar. In this short documentary, Bell Burnell shares her story — how she got interested in radio astronomy, the prejudice with which she was treated as the only woman in her university program, how she discovered the first pulsar and persisted (more than once) through Hewish’s assertions that the object was “interference”, and how she was passed over for the Nobel Prize for her discovery.

In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics “for fundamental contributions to the discovery of pulsars, and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community”, joining past honorees like the LIGO team, Stephen Hawking, and the team that discovered the Higgs boson. She donated the entire $3 million prize to the Institute of Physics to help support “PhD physics students from under-represented groups” with their educations.

It’s not justice, but I will note that Bell Burnell’s Wikipedia page is longer and more substantial than Hewish’s, despite his Nobel.

Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Might Still Be Orbiting the Moon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 20, 2021

After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon 52 years ago today in the Lunar Module (aka Eagle), they rode the ascent stage of the LM back to rendezvous with Michael Collins in the Command Module (aka Columbia). After docking, Eagle was jettisoned and the three astronauts returned to Earth in Columbia. It was presumed that Eagle orbited the Moon until eventually crashing into the surface, but a recent analysis shows that the spacecraft may have entered a stable orbit and is still circling the Moon decades after the end of the mission, a priceless artifact of an historic achievement.

Most spacecraft in lunar orbit suffer from instability in their orbits due to the ‘lumpy’ nature of the lunar gravity which tends to cause the orbits to eventually get so elliptical that they hit the moon.

However, an amateur space fan wanted to narrow down the possible impact location and used orbit modelling software to propagate the orbit forwards in time until it hit the moon. He was surprised to find that it didn’t hit the moon, and remained in a stable orbit for decades, this suggests that the Eagle may still be orbiting the moon over 5 decades after being left there.

The paper detailing the analysis suggests that if Eagle has survived, it should be detectable by radar.

Visualization of How Fast a Ball Drops on Various Solar System Bodies

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 14, 2021

This is an animation of how quickly an object falls 1 km to the surfaces of solar system objects like the Earth, Sun, Ceres, Jupiter, the Moon, and Pluto. For instance, it takes 14.3 seconds to cover that distance on Earth and 13.8 seconds on Saturn.

It might be surprising to see large planets have a pull comparable to smaller ones at the surface, for example Uranus pulls the ball down slower than at Earth! Why? Because the low average density of Uranus puts the surface far away from the majority of the mass. Similarly, Mars is nearly twice the mass of Mercury, but you can see the surface gravity is actually the same… this indicates that Mercury is much denser than Mars.

(via @thekidshouldsee)

New USPS Stamps Celebrate the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 24, 2021

postage stamp with an image of a plasma blast from the Sun

postage stamp with an image of a solar flare from the Sun

a group of postage stamps featuring images of the Sun

The US Postal Service has released a set of Sun Science stamps that use images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory to illustrate different solar phenomena like plasma blasts, sunspots, and solar flares.

Printed with a foil treatment that adds a glimmer to the stamps, the images on these stamps come from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft launched in February 2010 to keep a constant watch on the sun from geosynchronous orbit above Earth. The striking colors in these images do not represent the actual colors of the sun as perceived by human eyesight. Instead, each image is colorized by NASA according to different wavelengths that reveal or highlight specific features of the sun’s activity.

One of the stamps highlights sunspots, two feature images of coronal holes, two show coronal loops, two depict plasma blasts, one is a view of an active sun that emphasizes its magnetic fields, and two show different views of a solar flare.

NASA has more on the science behind the images on the stamps and the whole set of stamps are available for purchase online.

See also A Decade of the Sun.

Unexpected Minor Planet to Visit the Inner Solar System Soon

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 21, 2021

Well, this is cool: a recently discovered minor planet estimated to be between 62 and 230 miles across is currently journeying through our solar system and sometime in 2031 will be almost as close to the Sun as Saturn.

And it turns out, astronomers are about to witness the closest pass of this incredible round trip. Currently, 2014 UN271 is about 22 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun (for reference, Earth is 1 AU from the Sun). That means it’s already closer than Neptune, at 29.7 AU. And it’s not stopping there — it’s already traveled 7 AU in the last seven years, and at its closest in 2031, it’s expected to pass within 10.9 AU of the Sun, almost reaching the orbit of Saturn.

Before then, it’s expected to develop the characteristic coma and tail of a comet, as icy material on its surface vaporizes from the heat of the Sun. This close pass would give astronomers an unprecedented close look at Oort cloud objects.

C’mon NASA, let’s a get a probe fired up and visit this very unusual object!

The 2021 Milky Way Photographer of the Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 03, 2021

a photo of the Milky Way galaxy over a rocky canyon

a photo of the Milky Way galaxy over a house in the snow

To inspire folks to seek out their own galactic vistas, Capture the Atlas has chosen the best photos of the Milky Way for 2021. The top photo was taken by Daniel Thomas Gum in Australia and the bottom one by Larryn Rae in New Zealand. Check out the rest of the selections here.

Hisako Koyama, the Woman Who Stared at the Sun

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2021

In the history of science, there are women who have made significant contributions to their field but haven’t gotten the recognition that their male peers have. The field of astronomy & astrophysics in particular has had many female pioneers — Vera Rubin, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Annie Jump Cannon, Nancy Grace Roman, Maria Mitchell, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Caroline Herschel, Williamina Fleming, and many others. Add to that list Hisako Koyama, a Japanese astronomer whose detailed sketches of the Sun over a 40-year period laid the foundation for a 400-year timeline of sunspot activity, which has aided researchers in studying solar cycles and magnetic fields.

Ms. Koyama was a most unusual woman of her time. As a scientist, she bridged the amateur and professional world. She preferred “doing” activities: observing, data recording, interacting with the public, and writing. No doubt many Japanese citizens benefited from personal interaction with her. The space and geophysics community continues to benefit from her regular and precise observations of the Sun. Although we know very little of her young personal life other than she was relatively well educated and had a father who supported her desire to view the skies by providing a telescope, we can see from snippets in Japanese amateur astronomy articles that she had a passion for observing, as revealed in her 1981 article: “I simply can’t stop observing when thinking that one can never know when the nature will show us something unusual.”

Here are a few of her sunspot sketches, the top two done using her home telescope and the bottom one using the much larger telescope at the National Museum of Nature and Science (that shows the largest sunspot of the 20th century):

drawings of sunspots on the Sun by Hisako Koyama

drawings of sunspots on the Sun by Hisako Koyama

(via the kid should see this)