Events

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Rosetta and Maria Mitchell: Pioneering Astronomer from Massachusetts

The timing of the end of the Rosetta mission--the first spacecraft sent to rendezvous with a comet--was fortuitous. On September 30, after two years' study of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's orbiter joined the lander module Philae on the surface.

The following day, October 1, was the anniversary of an earlier astronomical milestone. On that date in 1847, 29-year-old Maria Mitchell became the first woman to make a telescopic sighting of a comet. She did so from the roof of the Pacific Nantucket Bank, where her family resided  while her father was chief cashier. Mitchell had learned astronomy from her father, a talented amateur scientist himself, and from the study that she had undertaken on her own, working as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum next door.

In 1840, William Mitchell laid out the town's meridian line, marked with stone posts on the sidewalk in front of the bank.







Maria Mitchell's discovery brought her fame and helped to launch a new career: she became the first female member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), as well as the first professor hired at the newly founded Vassar College (1862). A feminist, she became  president of the American Association for the Advancement of Women in 1875.

Today the family's 1790 house, operated by the Maria Mitchell Association, preserves many of her possessions and celebrates her legacy. In 2010, Heather Huyck, editor of  Women's History: Sites and Resources, listed the house among her ten favorites.


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