August 08 – Happy St Dominic’s Day!

Today is the feast day of St Dominic, the patron saint of astronomers.

St Dominic (Claudio Coello, c.1685)

St Dominic (Claudio Coello, c.1685)

Dominic de Guzmán was born in Spain in 1170, and became founder of the Dominican order, which today numbers a relatively robust 6,000 or so friars.  It is thought he may have been an early member of the Spanish Inquisition (I bet you weren’t expecting that) and is actually seen in a painting by Peter Beruguette presiding over an auto-da-fé (a public act of penance by condemned heretics, popular with the Inquisition).

St Dominic is also indirectly and tenuously linked to the formation of Everton FC, a football club with its origins in the nineteenth century sporting ambitions of the St Domingo Methodist Church, Liverpool.

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The High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite (HIPPARCOS) was launched today in 1989 by the European Space Agency, at the start of a successful four year career.  As well as being an only slightly tortured acronym, Hipparcos is a surprisingly accurate spelling of the Greek astronomer (but he’d be Turkish if he was born in the same town today) more commonly known as Hipparchus of Nicaea.  The homage is to his work on all kinds of trigonometric problems, including his insight into the precession of the equinoxes.  The greatest astronomer until Ptolemy, he is even suspected of devising a heliocentric (Sun at the centre) theory of the solar system, which he abandoned because it relied (correctly) on the orbits of the planets not being perfect circles.

The purpose of the Hipparcos mission was, very simply, to tell us where stars are, and where they are going relative to us.  Providing astronomers with a highly accurate frame of reference has allowed other, older astrometric measurements to be fine-tuned.  It has enabled us to calculate much better determinations for such things as the ages and masses of stars, and the rotation of the Galaxy.

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ALSO TODAY . . .

1991  –  Astronaut Jim Irwin (Apollo 15) died.

2001  –  Launch of the GENESIS spacecraft to collect a sample of the solar wind.

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