For the first time, a National U.S. Observatory has been named for a female astronomer: Vera Rubin
In two years the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will take its first views of the cosmos. Before first it got a new name. The announcement was made at a meeting. It was the 235th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Officials said that the facility will be named the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO). It is the first time a national United States observatory has been named for a woman. That was reported by Meghan Bartels for Space.com. The telescope is set to achieve first light in October 2021. It will begin science operations a year later
The news may not come as a surprise. That's for those keeping close tabs on the facility. It took more than six months to achieve the goal of renaming the observatory. A bill was introduced. It was introduced by Eddie Bernice Johnson. She is chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón was a co-sponsor. The bill argued for Rubin's recognition. Officials enacted the bill into law. That was on December 20, 2019.
"Dr. Vera Rubin exemplifies the remarkable contributions women have long made to science," González-Colón said in a statement last year. "I am proud to be a cosponsor of this bill."
Naming the observatory after Rubin is especially fitting. It honors her work. The observatory's construction was first proposed nearly 20 years ago. Researchers are eagerly waiting for telescope to open. It will probe the universe for dark matter. That's a mysterious substance. It is thought to hold galaxies together.
Rubin's pioneering studies in the 1970s offered some of the first evidence of dark matter's existence. Her work changed views of the cosmos. She helped the world realize that the universe was not dominated by visible matter. Instead she showed it was dominated by something humans have yet to observe directly.
Her observations were hard-won. She was in a field ruled by men. Rubin often battled sexism. This was to get respect for her work. That's what Elizabeth Howell reported for Space.com last year. Rubin became the first woman officially granted permission to observe at California's Palomar Observatory. That was in 1965. At the time it housed one of the world's most high-tech telescopes.
Rubin took note of the facility's single available toilet. This was on her first night at Palomar. It was labeled "MEN." That's what Kathryn Jepsen reported for Symmetry. Rubin drew a skirted woman. She pasted her on the door. She did this the next time she came to call. It made the observatory quietly introduce a gender-neutral bathroom. It was fully working by her third visit.
Rubin began to uncover some of the first evidence of dark matter. That happened within five years. She watched stars swirl around the centers of galaxies in unusual ways. Main theories at the time said that the central stars should be most affected by the gravitational pull of the galactic center. Thus moving the fastest. But Rubin noted this wasn't the case. She hinted that something unobservable was weighing galaxies down. That force is what we now know as dark matter.
Her discoveries were "one of the most important contributions to science in the past century. Not only for astronomy, but also for fundamental physics," said Steve Kahn. He is the Vera C. Rubin Observatory director. Rubin was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Physics several times. This was before her death. She died in 2016. But she never won. It was an oversight. Many considered it to be a sexist snub. That's what Ryan F. Mandelbaum reported for Gizmodo.
The VRO will study dark matter. It will scope out near-Earth asteroids. It will search for interstellar objects. And it will continue the ongoing quest to map the Milky Way. The telescope itself will bear a different name. It will be named after Charles Simonyi. He made a large private donation. That was early on in the facility's construction phase.
Rubin's name will serve as a reminder. That will happen even as our knowledge of the universe grows. It tells us that there's still plenty of work left to do right here on Earth. There are still few women and other minority populations. That's in the astronomy and physics fields. Much has changed since Rubin's first observations. But other parts of science have been far more stagnant.
Rubin gave an interview. It was with physicist and writer Alan Lightman. This was in 1989. She admitted that her gender had slowed her scientific career at times. But there was a bigger tragedy. That's according to Rubin. She said "all the women who would have liked to have become astronomers and didn't." That was reported by Symmetry's Jepsen.
Rubin spent her career measuring the forces of the universe she could not see. But her reach included a far more visible change as well. She fought for gender parity. This was in the sciences. She wrote a letter. It was to one of her female scientific mentors. Rubin wrote, "From you we have learned ... that it's all right to be charming, gracious, brilliant, and to be concerned for others as we make our way in the world of science. ... A woman too can rise to great heights as an astronomer."