For the first time, a National U.S. Observatory has been named for a female astronomer: Vera Rubin
For the first time, a National U.S. Observatory has been named for a female astronomer: Vera Rubin Vera C. Rubin, who advanced our understanding of dark matter, operating the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. (NOAO/AURA/NSF/Rubin Observatory/AURA/NSF)
For the first time, a National U.S. Observatory has been named for a female astronomer: Vera Rubin
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In two years the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is slated to take its first observations of the cosmos. Before that could happen it received a new name. The announcement was made at the 235th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Officials declared that the facility will now be known as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO). The change marks the first time a national United States observatory has been named for a woman. That was reported by Meghan Bartels for 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 for those keeping close tabs on the facility. The goal to rename the observatory was more than six months in the making. It comes after Eddie Bernice Johnson and congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón introduced a bill arguing for Rubin's recognition. Johnson is chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. Officials enacted the bill into law 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 an especially fitting way to honor her work. The observatory's construction was first proposed nearly 20 years ago. Researchers are eagerly waiting for the day the telescope begins to probe the universe for dark matter. That's the mysterious substance 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 dominated by men. Rubin frequently battled sexism to get respect for her work. That's what Elizabeth Howell reported for last year. Rubin became the first woman officially granted permission to observe at California's Palomar Observatory 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 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 the next time she came to call. It prompted the observatory to quietly introduce a gender-neutral bathroom. It was fully operational by her third visit.

Rubin had begun to uncover some of the first evidence of dark matter within five years. She watched stars swirl around the centers of galaxies in unusual ways. Prevailing 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 constituted "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 before her death in 2016. But she never won. It was an oversight many consider to be a sexist snub. That's what Ryan F. Mandelbaum reported for Gizmodo.

The VRO will study dark matter and will also scope out near-Earth asteroids. It will search for interstellar objects and continue the ongoing quest to map the Milky Way. The telescope itself will bear a different moniker. It will be named after Charles Simonyi. He made a large private donation early on in the facility's construction phase.

Rubin's name will serve as a reminder even as our knowledge of the universe expands. 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 in astronomy and physics. Much has changed since Rubin's first observations. But other aspects of science have been far more stagnant.

Rubin gave an interview with physicist and writer Alan Lightman in 1989. She acknowledged that her gender had stymied her scientific career at times. But there was a bigger tragedy 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 in the sciences. She wrote a letter to one of her own 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."

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