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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#185 - Caty Pilachowski

This week we are joined on the podcast by Professor Pilachowski who holds the Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington. We chat about some old space events, another legend from the Harvard computers and the crazy incident of the Long March 5B

Professor Caty Pilachowski holds the Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at Indiana University Bloomington, where she teaches and conducts research on the evolution of stars and the chemical history of the Milky Way Galaxy from studies of chemical composition of stars and star clusters (see her research page for more information).

She served for more than 20 years on the scientific staff of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson. While at NOAO, she served as Project Scientist for the design and construction of the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope, a telescope at which the IUB Astronomy Department holds a 17% share.


“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.”

Albert Einstein


May 15th

1958 – Sputnik 3 - Looked like a Dalek, a proper earth observation sat launched in the International Geophysical year.

1960 – Sputnik 4. Or Korabl-Sputnik 1 - the first Vostok spacecraft - a bit of it landed in a small town called Manitowoc in Wisconsin, found in the middle of North 8th Street by two city police officers. "Sputnikfest" is now held each september

1963 – The final Mercury mission, Mercury-Atlas 9 with astronaut Gordon Cooper on board. He becomes the first American to spend more than a day in space, and the last American to go into space alone.

Born on this day 1720 is Maximilian Hell, a Hungarian Astronomer, who was a pretty good, and observed the transit of Venus and catalogued stars, The crater Hell on the Moon is named after him.

Space Legend of the Week

Williamina Paton Stevens was born in Dundee, Scotland on May 15, 1857, 20 year s later she married James Fleming and moved to Boston.

Then James abandoned her so she became a maid for Edward Pickering (and regular listeners should know where this is going) of the Harvard College Observatory.

Pickering’s way of venting steam with his colleagues was to say "My Scottish maid could do better!" ...well it turned out she really could. She would go on, encouraged by pickering and his wife, to learn how to analyse stars, and became a founding member of the Harvard Computers (or Pickering’s Harem)

Williamina Fleming go on to discover the Horse Head Nebula, 59 gaseous nebulae, over 310 variable stars, and 10 novae. Henry Russell credited her with the discovery of the first white dwarf:

openly advocated for other women in the sciences in her talk "A Field for Woman's Work in Astronomy" at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago

The women of the Harvard Computers were famous during their lifetimes, but then were largely forgotten, although they are being slowly restored to their rightful position. The BBC ran a story about the Project Phaedra a few years ago. (

Project PHaEDRA (Preserving Harvard's Early Data and Research in Astronomy) is an initiative by the Wolbach Library, in collaboration with many partners, to catalog, digitize, transcribe, and enrich the metadata of over 2500 logbooks and notebooks produced by the Harvard Computers and early Harvard astronomers, to ensure that this remarkable set of items, created by a remarkable group of people, is as accessible and useful as possible

Working with the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s Digital Volunteers program to crowdsource transcriptions of the PHaEDRA notebooks. Transcribing the notebooks makes them full-text searchable on the NASA Astrophysics Data System, using tools built by the Zooniverse to link the PHaEDRA notebooks to their source material: over 500,000 astronomical glass plate photographs. Connecting the notebooks and the plates will create a bridge between the modern scientific literature and 100 years of astronomical observations.

Space News

We made a bit of a fuss when the 8 tonne Tiangong-1 uncontrollably fell to earth a couple of years ago, but why were we not thinking about a 21 tonne object?

Following Jonathan McDowell on twitter was great for this, he essentially had us all guessing what the hell!!!

So the Long March 5B that successfully launched the next generation of people carrying spacecraft last week, turns out that the booster itself made it inot orbit!! Not a great orbit and this orbit decayed after a few days, At some points the massive metal death machine passed over LA and New York and other populated areas!!!

After initial report that it safely hit the Atlantic ocean, some bits later showed up in photos in the Ivory Coast village of Mahounoou

“When you have a big chunk of metal screaming through the upper atmosphere in a particular direction at a particular time, and you get reports of things falling out of the sky at that location, at that time, it’s not a big leap to connect them,”

This is all very worrying with China ever expanding it’s space missions and starting on their space station soon, ...can we expect more of the same? Was this an accident or negligence, The Chinese are not saying. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, after giving the world Covid19 whats a few deaths caused by falling rocket debris!!!!!

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