During the early twentieth century, looking at our own solar system wasn't very fashionable among professional astronomers. With big new telescopes at their disposal, they were busy studying faint and remote stars and galaxies.
But Greek astronomer Jean-Henri Focas, who was born 100 years ago this month, wasn't worried about being fashionable. With his small telescopes at observatories in Greece and France, he was limited to observing the bright, nearby planets. He observed them with his eyes alone, and sketched what he saw. By then, most astronomers were using photographic plates to capture the view.
With his eyes alone, though, Focas compiled the most detailed map of Mars to date -- one that wouldn't be surpassed until spacecraft began studying the planet. And those spacecraft were guided in part by Focas.
As NASA began planning its early missions to the Moon and planets, it needed help from ground-based observatories -- and from astronomers who knew these bodies well. The solar system was once again fashionable. Focas's knowledge helped set the stage for the NASA missions.
To honor his accomplishments, fellow scientists named two craters for Focas -- one each on Mars and the Moon.
Focas was born on July 20th, 1909, and died just a few months shy of his 60th birthday. And what a birthday it would have been! On that day, astronauts first landed on the Moon -- aided in part by the keen eyes of Jean-Henri Focas.
Script by Thomas Hockey, Copyright 2009
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.