Reach for the Stars: New App Offers Interactive Exploration of Women in Astronomy
The Science Near Me blog is a partnership between Discover magazine and ScienceNearMe.org.
Today, more women than ever are studying space. The number of female physicists, astronomers, mathematicians and others is steadily increasing, after centuries of male overrepresentation in science. This has meant more role models for girls and young women deciding what they want to do with their future, and a greater diversity of views and ideas for science as a whole.
But of course, it has not always been so. Women have historically been excluded from scientific research, which has only slowly begun to change in the last century. But that doesn’t mean women haven’t been part of science. In astronomy alone, women astronomers, mathematicians and scientists have done fundamental observational work, discovered comets, organized star catalogs and more. But their achievements have often been overshadowed by the work of – or worse, falsely attributed to – their male colleagues, meaning our understanding of the history of astronomy is incomplete.
That has changed in recent years as books, movies and more have illuminated the lives of these brilliant women, not the least of which was film. hidden numbers, which chronicles the work of African-American mathematicians at NASA. But women’s contribution to the study of the universe goes back centuries.
Starting in the 18th century, Caroline Herschel, a German astronomer, made observations of the night sky, looking for new nebulae and comets. She went on to discover several previously unknown comets, including 35P/Herschel-Rigollet, and performed work that formed the basis of the new General Catalog of Deep Sky Objects that is still in use today.
Herschel led a far different life than she might have expected. Initially keen to become a singer, she instead followed her brother William Herschel’s passion for astronomy, becoming a studious and dedicated astronomer in her own right. Herschel was the first woman to publish in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Societyand eventually received a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, awarded to [people who are awesome in what way]. She was also probably the first woman to earn a salary for her scientific work – 50 pounds a year, or more than $7,500 today.
An illustration from volume 77 of Philosophical Transactions, with six diagrams showing comets found by Caroline Herschel and her brother, William, and their positions.
More than a century after Herschel, Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming would also make important contributions to a catalog of stars. While in charge of the Henry Draper Catalog, Fleming developed a new system for classifying stars based on the relative amounts of hydrogen they contained, which astronomers could see in the spectrum of light they emitted. The catalog ultimately included more than 10,000 stars and was an important reference for astronomers as they worked to better understand the diversity of stars in our universe.
Williamina Fleming, circa 1890s. (Courtesy of the Curator of Astronomical Photographs at Harvard College Observatory)
Fleming is perhaps best known today, however, as the discoverer of the Horsehead Nebula, one of the most visually striking and well-known nebulae – massive clouds of gas and dust – of the galaxy. She also made impressive observational contributions like the discovery of 59 nebulae, over 310 variable stars and 10 novae herself, as well as the first-ever white dwarf.
In the 20th century, the space race captured public attention for much of the 1960s, as the United States and Russia competed to send humans into space and then to the moon. But behind the astronauts, many largely unsung people worked long hours and pioneered cutting-edge technologies to realize the dream of becoming a space nation. These behind-the-scenes heroes included a small group of African-American mathematicians, now memorialized in the film hidden numbers, who were instrumental in sending American astronauts into space.
Dorothy Vaughan, one of NASA’s “hidden figures”. (Credit: NASA)
Hidden characters included Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who spent nearly three decades working for the US government, both at precursor NASA and at NASA itself. There she oversaw a group of “human computers” who performed the complex calculations needed to send rockets into orbit and return astronauts safely. She participated in the Scout Vehicle Launch Program, an early rocket program that sent small satellites into space, and later helped launch John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, into space. in 1962.
Not to be outdone, the Soviets announced the following year that they would send the first female cosmonaut into space. They accomplished this in 1963 when Valentina Tereshkova made the trip to orbit on the Vostok 6 mission, becoming the first woman in space. Tereshkova spent three days in orbit before landing safely. She got the job because of her interest in skydiving – the Soviet space program recruited paratroopers as cosmonauts. Tereshkova became world famous after her trip, touring the world and speaking to crowds about her trip. Later, she earned a doctorate in aeronautical engineering and retired from the Soviet Air Force with the rank of major general.
Valentina Tereshkova, photographed in 2017. (Credit: Kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0))
Keep exploring women in astronomy
There are countless examples of women making significant contributions to astronomy – too many for one article! To learn more about the rich history of female astronomers, as well as the many female scientists advancing our knowledge today, check out Reach Across the Stars, a new augmented reality app from NASA.
The free app features special 360-degree AR tours narrated by leading scientists that let you fly to Mars, float through the International Space Station, get a behind-the-scenes look at the Mars 2020 rover, and more ! You can also learn about new science first-hand with interviews with awesome scientists like Jet Propulsion Laboratory systems engineer Christina Hernández, NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Jessica Watkins, and computer scientist and astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced.
You can read more about the app, listed as Apple’s App of the Day, at Science near me. SNM is your one-stop-shop for opportunities to engage in science and try new things. You can find many other astronomy events near you like star parties, planetarium shows and more at ScienceNearMe.org.