Friday, October 4, 2013

Happy Sputnik Day!

On October 4, 1957, the world launched its first satellite, Sputnik 1, into Earth orbit. Yes, it was specifically the part of the world identified at the time as the USSR, but I hope that in time it will be seen as the purely human achievement it was. In honor of this satellite launch, which began the space age and pushed the US into a ferment of frustrated pride and compensatory science education, we'll look at some spacecraft named for notable humans. (Sputnik, by the way, is simply the Russian word for satellite.)

The first name that comes to mind when you think of satellites named for humans may be the Hubble Space Telescope, named for Edwin Hubble. His achievements were many, but the high points are his discovery that the spiral nebulae are actually independent galaxies separate from our own, and that the light from these galaxies is redshifted in proportion to their distance. (He also played basketball at the University of Chicago and taught at a high school in New Albany, Indiana.)

The successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, is named for NASA's second administrator. Webb was in office from February 1961 (a few months before Alan Shepard became the first US man in space) until October 1968, shortly before Apollo 8 flew to the moon and orbited it. He left office to free Lyndon Johnson's successor to appoint his own NASA administrator. Leaving NASA in October 1968 seems like it must have been a difficult sacrifice. The JWST is planned for launch in 2018.

The Hubble Space Telescope was one of NASA's Great Observatories. The others were:
  • the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, named for Arthur Holly Compton, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for work in gamma ray physics
  • the Chandra X-ray Observatory, named for Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, another Nobel Prize winner (1983) for his work on the death throes of massive stars (Chandra also means moon in Sanskrit.)
  • the Spitzer Space Telescope, covering the other end of the spectrum in the infrared; it was named for Lyman Spitzer, Jr., an astronomer and an early proponent of space-based telescopes
You may have heard this summer about a new map of the cosmic microwave background, the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. That map came from data from Planck, a European Space Agency mission that has been examining the CMB, which is quite smooth, for irregularities that might indicate the origins of the clumpy structure of today's universe. Max Planck was a German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918 for his work in establishing quantum theory.

Some notable missions have been named for much earlier astronomers. Cassini, a NASA mission that's been orbiting Saturn and making spectacular observations since 2004, is named for Giovanni Cassini, a 17th century astronomer who discovered four of Saturn's moons and the most prominent of the gaps in Saturn's rings (now called the Cassini Division). The mission included a probe that landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The probe was named Huygens, after another 17th century scientist, Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan and made many other contributions to science.

Galileo, a similarly long-lived and successful NASA mission that explored Jupiter, is named for Galileo Galilei, one of the great figures in the history of science and the first to turn a telescope onto the night sky and write about what he saw there.

Johannes Kepler, who lived around the same time as Galileo and formulated the three laws of planetary motion that made sense of planetary motion in the solar system, also has a space-based NASA observatory named for him. The Kepler mission monitored the brightnesses of stars to look for minute periodic differences that would indicate the presence of a planet crossing the face of a star and blocking some of its light. It has found 134 confirmed exoplanets and another 3,277 candidates. Although the mission is halted at the moment due to an equipment failure, it may yet continue its search.

The last two missions I'll mention are named for scientists who lived much earlier than any of the others I've talked about. India's first satellite was named for Aryabhata, an Indian mathematician and astronomer who lived in the sixth century of the common era and had some astonishingly accurate knowledge of the solar system for his time. The satellite was used to conduct astronomical research for four days in 1975. The Greek astronomer Hipparchus lived even longer ago, in the second century before the common era. Hipparcos, an ESA mission, was named for him; the name is actually a somewhat strained acronym for High precision parallax collecting satellite. It gathered extremely precise data on the positions of well over 100,000 stars, providing a very accurate catalog to join the other astronomical data sources I wrote about in an earlier post.

Although science is not generally connected with warm human feelings or meaningful human traditions, these names illustrate the continuous thread of international human connections and memories that runs through astronomy and physics. They remind us that despite Cold War competition and other rivalries, a similar thread runs through every field of science.

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