It’s that time of year again when residents of the UK lose an hour’s sleep in exchange for lighter evenings.
At 1.00 am GMT (2.00 am BST) on Sunday 27 March 2011 clocks go forward one hour as civil time changes from Coordinated Universal Time (almost the same as Greenwich Mean Time) to British Summer Time (BST).
The Ninth European Parliament and Council Directive on Summer Time
Arrangements states that summer (or daylight saving) time will be kept
between the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October, and the
changes will take place at 01.00 GMT.
From meteor showers to giant asteroid impacts, the Earth is constantly bombarded by debris from space. A brand-new exhibition now open at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich takes a look at these fiery visitors and their
impact on our planet, which can cause death and destruction; laying
waste to vast areas and even triggering mass extinctions of plants and
animals. It also explores the vital clues that asteroids and meteorites
provide about the violent formation of the Solar System. Plus there’s
the chance to see and touch real space rocks in the Royal Observatory’s astronomy
230 years ago today the size of the solar system doubled. Slightly before midnight on 13 March 1781, in his back garden in Bath, German-born musician and astronomer William Herschel clocked a strange object in the eyepiece of his home-made telescope. The curio, which Herschel initially thought might be a comet, would go on to be confirmed as a seventh planet, encircling the Sun at twice the distance of Saturn. Later named Uranus, it was the first new planet discovered since antiquity. However, things could have been very different if John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, had known what he was looking at almost a century earlier.
In 1675 King Charles II made Flamsteed the first incumbent of the post of Astronomer Royal at the new Royal Observatory built on Greenwich hill by Christopher Wren. His task was simple: to accurately chart the heavens so as to contribute to a solution to “The Longitude Problem” and save deaths from shipwrecks (or, perhaps more accurately, to stop the King’s treasure finding a new home at the bottom of the ocean).
By 1690 Flamsteed’s growing catalogue of “fixed stars” included the rather innocuously titled 34 Tauri, a faint object on the cusp of human eyesight in the constellation of Taurus. 34 Tauri would again be observed by Flamsteed in 1712 and 1715 and by one of Flamsteed’s successors as Astronomer Royal, James Bradley, in 1748, 1750 and 1753. The trouble was that no-one realised they were looking at the same thing; the ‘fixed’ star had wandered across the heavens, the distinct calling card of a planet (from the Greek for ‘wanderer’).
It took the great resolving power of Herschel’s newly built 6.2 inch reflecting telescope to see 34 Tauri, which by 1781 had wandered into the constellation of Gemini, as a disc rather than a point like star. In fact, Herschel’s telescope was better than any at the disposal of Nevil Maskleyne, the latest Astronomer Royal and the oft, and perhaps wrongly, maligned adversary of clockmaker John Harrison.
The collective Astronomers Royal may have missed out on the greatest astronomical discovery since the days of Galileo but Maskleyne, in backing Herschel, would play a crucial role in getting his German colleague’s discovery ratified. Maskleyne, a highly connected man at the head of English astronomy, called upon his European counterparts to further examine Herschel’s sighting. Calculations of its near circular orbit, rather than the highly elliptical orbit of a comet, and the lack of a distinct tail, confirmed that Herschel had nudged up the population of the solar system by one.
It was also Maskleyne who pressed Herschel to name the solar system’s latest inhabitant. Obligingly, Herschel first called it Georgium Sidus (or “George’s Star”) after the then King – but not yet mad – George III. However, arguments about the name persisted, not least because it wasn’t a star. In the end Uranus was adopted, being the father of Saturn, as Saturn was in turn the father of Jupiter in Roman mythology.
Finally, one of the greatest discoveries in astronomy to that time was officially acknowledged.. Overlooked by Flamsteed and Bradley, discovered by Herschel and brought to the forefront by Maskleyne, it would be another 65 years before Uranus would be usurped as the gatekeeper to the edge of the Solar System.
Colin Stuart is a freelance astronomy writer as well as presenter in the Peter Harrison Planetarium.