The way we look at the stars has been influenced by many women, but you may not know their names. Many pursued their passion for the heavens long before astronomy’s old-boy network welcomed them into the fold. Thankfully, things are changing, though women still account for only 15 percent of astronomers worldwide. But as you’ll see, what they lack in numbers, these women make up for in contributions to our understanding of the cosmos.
Vera Cooper Rubin: Dark matter detective
In the early 1970s, Vera Rubin teamed up with astronomer Kent Ford and others to study the rotation of spiral galaxies, according to the Jewish Women's Archive. To their surprise, they found that the predicted angular motion didn’t match what they were seeing. In fact, galaxies were rotating so fast that predictions showed they should break apart if the only thing holding them together was the gravity from their visible stars. Rubin and her collaborators hypothesized that some invisible glue — an unseen mass — must be at work. The group’s groundbreaking work provided the first direct evidence of the existence of invisible dark matter, that mysterious stuff that makes up most of the universe but gives off no energy or light. In fact, it’s still the reigning theory for the "galaxy rotation problem” they discovered. Rubin received dozens of awards and honors for helping decode how galaxies and the universe are constructed. She died in 2016 at the age of 88.
Carolyn Porco: Queen of the rings
Carolyn Porco is something of a rock star among astronomers. She's not only a prolific writer, but she is also frequently profiled and interviewed by the media. Porco also finds time for groundbreaking research, beginning in the 1980s with her work on the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In fact, she’s considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the planetary rings and moons that circle these giant outer planets. Porco is now leading the imaging team on the Cassini mission, which is orbiting Saturn. Among her greatest discoveries so far are the giant geysers of icy particles (indicating the presence of water) on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus. Porco is also an imaging scientist on the New Horizons mission, presently en route to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt at the farthest edges of our solar system. You can hear Porco's TED talk about Saturn in the video above.
Nancy Grace Roman: Mother of the Hubble Space Telescope
Long before most women dared to consider a career in science, Nancy Grace Roman dreamed of being an astronomer, according to a NASA interview. Born in 1925, she organized a backyard astronomy club for her friends when she was 11 and never stopped reaching for the stars. She went on to get her Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Chicago in 1949 and became NASA’s first chief of astronomy — and the first woman to hold an executive position there. Roman’s greatest achievement is perhaps her pioneering crusade to develop orbiting telescopes, including the Hubble, which help astronomers detect stars’ electromagnetic radiation (such as infrared and gamma rays) that are mostly blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere. Her efforts have given countless astronomers a more complete vision of how stars form and evolve.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Pulsar pioneer
In 1967, while working toward her doctorate at Cambridge University, Jocelyn Bell Burnell observed strange pulsing signals coming from space through the school’s new radio telescope that she had helped build with her thesis adviser, Antony Hewish, and Sir Martin Ryle, according to Britannica.com. Through meticulous research, she and her colleagues eventually identified these radio signals as coming from a rapidly spinning neutron star, or pulsar, as it became known. Burnell was listed as the second author on the paper announcing the discovery of pulsars but was snubbed by the Nobel committee, which jointly awarded the prize in physics to Hewish and Ryle in 1974. Her omission is still considered controversial. Burnell, a native of Northern Ireland, has gone on to receive dozens of awards and honors for advancing our comprehension of the stars and was recently named the first female president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy of science and letters.
Margaret J. Geller: Cartographer of the universe
The universe is a big place, but that hasn’t stopped Margaret Geller from trying to shrink it to an understandable size. From the beginning, her goal has been nothing short of godlike: to map all that can — and can’t — be seen in the cosmos. The prize-winning Geller received a Ph.D. from Princeton and taught at Harvard. She works as a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, where she studies the structure of galaxies, including our own Milky Way, and seeks to map the distribution of dark matter to help us better understand its role in the universe and our relationship to it.
Debra Fischer: Exoplanet hunter
Like Columbus and Magellan before her, Yale astronomer Debra Fischer is an explorer of new worlds — except these new worlds aren't on Earth. She and her colleagues have located hundreds of planets outside our solar system that orbit other suns. Fischer was finishing graduate school just as the first extrasolar planet was discovered in the 1980s. Her doctoral thesis happened to be on Doppler spectroscopy, a method used to detect exoplanets. She was hooked. Since then she’s discovered similarities between our solar system and others (for instance, most contain multiple planets like our own). However, Fischer and her team, with help from citizen scientists in a group she helped launch called Planet Hunters, have also discovered many weird and wacky planets that don’t resemble ours at all, including one with two suns. Why does she do it? The real goal, she admits, is to find extraterrestrial life.
Carolyn Shoemaker: Comet chaser
With hundreds of asteroids and dozens of comets to her name (more than any other astronomer), Carolyn Shoemaker is a legend. Perhaps her greatest claim to fame is the 1993 co-discovery with her husband, Eugene, and amateur astronomer David Levy of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, When they found it, the comet was orbiting Jupiter in pieces, apparently shortly after being grabbed by the mammoth planet’s gravitational forces and torn apart. The next year, its 21 fragments smashed into Jupiter, wowing astronomers everywhere with a spectacular once-in-a-lifetime show. Now 85, Shoemaker has received numerous awards for her world-altering discovery and subsequent work scouring the skies for asteroids and comets that could collide with Earth.
Heidi Hammel: Outer planetary astronomer
When Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 met its end in 1994, it was young Heidi Hammel and her team who helmed the Hubble Space Telescope from Earth to photograph and study the colossal event. As a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute and executive vice president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Hammel’s research centers on Neptune and Uranus — the oft-disrespected “Rodney Dangerfields of the solar system” as the New York Times so aptly described them. Renowned for her ability to explain science to regular folks, Hammel has forever changed the way we view these outer planets, which are dynamic, ever-evolving worlds. She is also helping develop Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set for launch in 2018 and will bring our solar system and the rest of the universe into sharper focus.
Sandra Faber: Decoder of galaxies
What is the universe and how did it get here? These may be the most burning questions of all. Astronomer Sandra Faber has spent a lifetime seeking scientific answers and in the process has changed the way astrophysicists view the heavens. A professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and interim director of the UC Observatories, Faber’s decades of research revolves around the evolution of structure in the universe and how galaxies form. She co-discovered the Faber-Jackson relation (a way of estimating the distances to other galaxies by linking their brightness to the speed of stars within them), helped design the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and leads the largest Hubble Space Telescope project in history — CANDELS — to understand galaxy formation close to the time of the Big Bang. In 2013, President Obama awarded Faber the National Medal of Science.
Jill Tarter: Alien tracker
Humans have wondered since the beginning of time whether anyone else is out there. For astronomer Jill Tarter, this question spawned a career. Like Ellie Arroway, the heroine of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel “Contact,” Tarter devoted decades to scanning the heavens for life in the field known as SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, including a stint as director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute. In fact, Jodie Foster consulted with her during filming of the movie version of "Contact.” Now retired, Tarter never made contact with any non-earthlings, but her passion and dedication for using scientific methods and pioneering technology to find them has helped push our search for cosmic neighbors out of the realm of quackery and into the realm of respectability, and even possibility.
This story was originally published in December 2014 and has been updated with more recent information.
Inset photos: NASA (Vera Rubin); Gene Shoemaker/USGS (Carolyn Shoemaker)