June 18 – William Lassell

At last, a local lad (almost). William Lassell was born in Bolton, Lancashire, on this day in 1799. And it gets even more local for us Liverpool residents, because he went on to live in Norton Street (mostly a coach station now, and I don’t think there’s a single house left there today so a blue plaque is unlikely) and later a house called Starfield in West Derby, just a twenty minute drive from here (it would be ten minutes, but it’s along Queens Drive, a collection of traffic lights joined by short stretches of road).

William Lassell
William Lassell

Keeping up this month’s vague Neptunian theme, William Lassell’s biggest claim to fame was that he discovered the moon Triton a mere 17 days after Johann Galle discovered Neptune. His whopping 24-inch self-ground reflector at Starfield was probably a major reason why he was also able to discover Saturn’s moon Hyperion in 1848, and two Uranian moons, Ariel and Umbriel (1851). It was also the main reason why he was visited, in 1850, by the great Russian-American astronomer Otto Struve, who was keen to compare it to his own 15″ refractor. The mirror from Lassell’s telescope is now in the collection of Liverpool Museum.

After several years of observing in Malta (he had decided that Liverpool skies in the 1850s were not ideal, his house occasionally being mockingly referred to as Cloudfield) Lassell moved back to England and settled in Maidenhead in Kent, to where he had the 24-inch telescope relocated. He died there in 1880.

Starfield, West Derby (©Trustees of the British Museum).
Starfield, West Derby (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Annoyingly, Starfield seems to have been obliterated from the face of West Derby. On Ordnance Survey maps of a century ago there appears a “Starfield Street”, presumably built on the crushed remains of Lassell’s residence, but it, too, has disappeared.

1878 – Asteroid 188 Menippe was discovered by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters in New York.

2002 – Minor planet 2002 MS4 (the second largest unnamed object in the solar system) was discovered by Chad Trujillo and Michael E. Brown. It is estimated to be 800 to 900 km in diameter, putting it potentially within reach of the title “dwarf planet”.

2016 – An unashamedly Brit-centric entry. British astronaut Tim Peake (and others) landed in Kazakhstan on this day in 2016, following a successful tour to the International Space Station.

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