5 Outstanding Female Astronomers
The contribution of female astronomers to world science is often overlooked. In today’s article, we’d like to pay tribute to five influential women in astronomy, both of the past and present. The following list is in no way complete, and we might expand it in the future.
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Caroline Herschel (1750–1848)
- Country: born in Germany, active in the UK
- Notable discoveries: several comets and deep-sky objects
Caroline Lucretia Herschel — the younger sister of the famous astronomer William Herschel — had many firsts to her credit:
- the world’s first professional female astronomer who received a salary for her work;
- the first woman in England to hold an official government position (assistant of the court astronomer);
- the first woman to become an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Caroline Herschel discovered eight comets and fourteen deep-sky objects. The objects she discovered include a periodic comet 35P/Herschel-Rigollet and a dwarf elliptical galaxy M110 — a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy.
Objects named in honor of Caroline Herschel: asteroid 281 Lucretia; open clusters NGC 2360 (Caroline’s Cluster) and NGC 7789 (Caroline’s Rose).
Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921)
- Country: USA
- Notable discovery: period-luminosity relation
Along with approximately 40 other women, Henrietta Swan Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory as a “computer” — in the early 20th century, this was the closest option to a scientific career for female astronomers. The task given to the “Harvard Computers” was to classify stars by examining photographic plates.
In 1908, while studying the Cepheid variables, Leavitt discovered that the pulsation period of a variable star is determined by its luminosity. This discovery (now known as the “Leavitt’s law”) eventually allowed astronomers to measure distances to remote stars, galaxies, and star clusters. For example, in 1924, Edwin Hubble used a Cepheid variable to measure the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy and proved that it was located outside the Milky Way.
Objects named in honor of Henrietta Swan Leavitt: asteroid 5383 Leavitt, crater Leavitt on the Moon.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900–1979)
- Country: born in the UK, active in the USA
- Notable discovery: composition of stars
Cecilia Payne became interested in astronomy after she attended a lecture by Arthur Eddington, who had confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity while observing a solar eclipse. After graduating from Cambridge University, she moved to the USA, as she felt there would be more career opportunities there than in the UK.
In 1925, Cecilia presented her doctoral thesis, where she proposed that stars, including our Sun, were composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. This groundbreaking discovery was initially rejected: at the time, most scientists believed the Sun was made up of the same elements as the Earth. However, her discovery was eventually recognized; she received several awards and became the first female professor at Harvard University.
Objects named in honor of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: asteroid 2039 Payne-Gaposchkin, Payne-Gaposchkin Patera (volcanic crater) on Venus.
Vera Rubin (1928–2016)
- Country: USA
- Notable discovery: evidence for dark matter
One of the subjects of Vera Rubin’s study was the rotation of spiral galaxies. She noticed that the stars in the outermost parts of a galaxy moved as quickly as the stars close to the galaxy’s center. This was unusual because, at the time, astronomers thought that the farther a star is from the galaxy’s center, the slower its orbital speed. Vera Rubin’s observation meant that outer regions of galaxies contained large amounts of unseen matter that held rapidly moving stars in orbit.
As a result, Vera Rubin concluded that about 90% of the mass in the galaxies consists of invisible dark matter. She wasn’t the first to propose the concept of dark matter, though — it was introduced earlier by Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky but wasn’t taken seriously by scientists. Vera Rubin’s calculations helped prove that Zwicky’s theory was correct.
Objects named in honor of Vera Rubin: asteroid 5726 Rubin, Vera Rubin Ridge on Mars.
Andrea Mia Ghez (born 1965)
- Country: USA
- Notable discovery: a black hole in our galaxy’s center
The focus of Andrea Ghez’s scientific research has always been the center of our galaxy. With the help of the W. M. Keck Observatory’s telescopes, she managed to observe individual stars around the galactic center and calculate their orbits. Then, she and her colleagues used the stars’ orbital motion to show that they moved around an object that was very small (60 million km in diameter) but had a mass of 4 million solar masses. Of all known objects, only a black hole could have had such properties.
For the discovery of a black hole in the Milky Way’s galactic center, Andrea Ghez received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020. She became the fourth woman in history to receive this award.
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