December 14 – Birth of Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe was born today in 1546 in Denmark. As the child of a wealthy family (he was born in a castle) he was well placed to receive a good education, and took up astronomy while studying law.

Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)
Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)

Tycho made several leaps of the imagination, including the development of his own model of the solar system, which he nearly got right. He correctly deduced that the Moon orbits the Earth, and that the planets orbit the Sun. unfortunately he also decided that the Sun must orbit the earth; an easy mistake to make I suppose at that time, if you spend your entire life seeing it cross the sky thousands of times in front of your very eyes.

Tycho was also the first person to decide that novae (they weren’t called that at the time) originated further away than the Moon. The popular view was that the stars were fixed and unchanging, and anything that appeared in the sky had  to be closer than them. But Tycho noticed that a bright new star in Cassiopeia (now called SN1572) did not move against the background stars, and so must be farther away than all the objects that did. It sounds fairly reasonable to us, but in the 16th century the night sky was anything but obvious.


2009 – Launch of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) by NASA, on a mission  to map 99% of the sky. So far, it has found more than 33,000 asteroids and comets, over 200 Near-Earth Asteroids (including 43 potentially hazardous ones), the most luminous galaxy in the known universe, and numerous brown dwarfs.


2013  –  the Chinese Chang’E 3 mission lands on the Moon.

The Chang'E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)
The Chang’E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)

 


 

September 25 – Launch of Shenzhou 7 (2008)

A lot of people in the west don’t even know the Chinese have put people in space, but they have. And they’re going to catch up. Shenzhou 7 was launched on September 25th, 2008, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Mongolia, and the three-man crew (a first for China) of Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng spent just under three days in orbit. Commander Zhai became the first Chinese astronaut to perform a spacewalk.

The mission ended with a successful landing, also in Mongolia.

The Chinese have a very long name for their astronauts, “Navigating Outer-Space Personnel”, although if you put the Chinese characters 航天员 into Google Translate it throws “astronaut” back. My Chinese reading skills leave a lot to be desired, but I can tell you that the second character means “sky”or” heaven”. The press seem to have adopted the word “taikonaut”. Apparently, the word tàikōng means “space”.