10 Most Influential Women In Astronomy (Pt.1)

This is an article that I wrote for Listverse that didn’t work out, they just felt like the material was not unique enough, which is fine. I wrote this article to show that astronomy is not just a boy’s club, and that there are important women doing work in the field of astronomy.


10. Carolyn Shoemaker

In 1994 the comet Levy-Shoemaker 9 collided with Jupiter and exploded. For the first time in history, human astronomers were able to observed the collision between two extraterrestrial objects. It was a pivotal moment in astronomical history, and was possible in part because of Carolyn Shoemaker, who co-discovered the comet before it hit Jupiter.

Shoemaker had a long history of looking for comets and asteroids. Her career began in the 1980s when she joined a project to discover asteroids and comets that crossed Earth’s orbit. She pioneered techniques to discover distant objects that were not in the asteroid belt. By using large telescopes to look at star fields, Shoemaker was able to notice when objects moved relative to the background stars. That is how she found Levy-Shoemaker 9. Although that comet was her biggest find, Shoemaker held a long-standing record for most comets found by a single person. Her count so far is thirty-two comets and three hundred asteroids, which was only just surpassed by another astronomer, who probably used her techniques.



9. Mae Jemison

Women astronauts only joined NASA spaceflight in the 1980s, the first being Sally Ride. Mae Jemison learned from Sally Ride’s example and applied as an astronaut for NASA. Jemison already had substantial background in science and engineering from her college career. She was also heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhuru on Star Trek. Although there was still racial prejudice when Jemison was growing up, these two icons helped her stay optimistic and tenacious. Before she decided to be an astronaut, Jemison worked for the Peace Corp and started a medical practice before she decided to follow her dreams of space flight. On her first application Jemison was shot down, but the second time she applied NASA accepted her.

Jemison trained to launch on the space shuttle Endeavor on the 50th space shuttle mission. STS-47 conducted various experiments in life science, and Jemison’s physics and medical background allowed her to be a key part of the mission. When STS-47 launched, Jemison became the first African-American woman in space. The mission was a success, and Jemison’s role paved the way for more African-American women to join space agencies and pursue space related careers. Her influence can not be overstated.

After the mission Jemison continued to study but resigned from NASA to pursue research into social studies. Specifically, she is researching how societies interact with new technology. Jemison has received seven honorary doctorates. When Star Trek: The Next Generation star LeVar Burton found out that Jemison was a fan of the series he pulled some strings and the writers had her guest star in an episode of the show. She was the first ever real astronaut to appear on the show. Jemison continues to influence the development of space flight and astronomy by heading the 100 Year Starship Initiative, a group dedicated to developing technologies that will allow humans to reach another star.



8. Margaret Geller

One of the biggest pushes in the late 20th century was the mapping and discovery of the large-scale structure of the universe, specifically the local galactic clusters. Without the work of Margaret Geller, this would have been impossible. Geller got her PhD in 1975 and soon joined Harvard University for a stint and later worked with Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. During this time Geller began to study the large-scale structure of our universe.

Up until that time the biggest problem was developing reliable maps that showed the universe as a whole, not just a small slice. In the 1980s the measurement of galactic distribution was haphazard at best, making any reliable map impossible. When Geller started her research, she pioneered a variety of techniques to determine galactic distribution and specifically studied galactic clusters. With her research, Geller developed the first accurate maps that showed the large-scale structure of the universe. This allowed her to discover objects like the immense Great Wall galactic filament, one of the biggest features in our universe at 500 million light years across.

Geller’s pioneering work on the structure of the universe changed cosmology and astronomy. With her maps and techniques, astronomers were no longer confined to only be able to discuss our galactic neighborhood.They could make observations and assumptions about how our universe is now shaped and how it got that way. Currently, Geller is working to survey distant galaxies to help develop techniques to figure out the internal structure of galaxies and help understand how galactic clusters form.



7. Nancy G. Roman

From an early age, Nancy G. Roman loved astronomy. At age 11 she formed an astronomy club with her closest friends. Little did she know that the main part of her career would be based on organizing groups of astronomers and developing astronomy organizations. After graduating with degrees in astronomy, Roman briefly worked as with various observatories including the Naval Research Laboratory. During a guest lecture a NASA employee asked Roman is she knew anybody who wanted to take a job at NASA. Roman accepted the job herself.

After a short time at NASA Roman became the organization’s first Chief of Astronomy and Solar Physics where she served from 1961 to 1963 until moving on to other NASA projects. During her time with NASA, Roman budgeted and lead development on six different satellite programs including three Orbiting Solar Observatories. These satellites were critical in collecting data that NASA used to research the sun and discover key properties about main sequence stars. Beyond these significant projects, Roman also helped design components and experiments for the Gemini, Skylab, Apollo and Spacelab missions.

But Romans most important contribution to the history of astronomy is her work in developing the Hubble Space Telescope. Roman and other NASA executives realized that a space telescope would be a huge benefit for astronomical research. The job of getting the mission together was difficult, but Roman worked tirelessly to organize the various teams and get Congress to fund Hubble. Because of her work, Roman is known as the “Mother of Hubble.” Regretfully, Roman’s place in the development of the Hubble Telescope is largely forgotten, but without her astronomy would have never benefited from Hubble’s amazing capabilities.



6. Vera C. Rubin

Vera C. Rubin published her doctoral thesis in 1954. In her work she concluded that galaxies were not randomly distributed but clumped together in clusters. Nobody considered this before and nobody believed her paper although she got her degree. Little did Rubin or anybody else know that her simple proposal would pave the way to the development of dark matter theories, one of the main hallmarks of 20th and 21st century astronomy.

After graduation Rubin dedicated work to discovering the rotation rate of galaxies. In her research Rubin discovered something odd. The Milky Way galaxy rotated differently in relation to nearby galaxies than it did to the cosmic microwave radiation. Although this was extremely strange, Rubin did not want to stir up controversy and decided to work with different galaxies. But even then she discovered a strange phenomenon. Galaxies like the Andromeda galaxy are spinning far too fast to stay together. Their angular momentum should tear the galaxy apart and yet they stay together. This discovery lead to the theory of dark matter.

Rubin’s calculations showed that a galaxy should have 10 times the amount of matter than visible to stay together. When Rubin published on the topic many astronomers picked up the work to explain what became known as the Galaxy Rotation Problem. Eventually dark matter theory came into play to explain why galaxies appeared the way they are. While the current theory uses theoretical subatomic particles to describe dark matter, Rubin herself favors modified Newtonian physics to describe the phenomenon.





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