August 31 – Make A Wish

Today’s factismal: Today is the 174th birthday of the US Naval Observatory.

Back in 1842, international power meant sea power. The nation with the biggest, strongest ships was the nation that could control the seven seas and protect its interests across the globe. But it wasn’t enough to just have the biggest and strongest ships; you also had to be able to get them to where they were needed. And for that, you needed three things: accurate chronometers, accurate star maps, and accurate predictions of the tide. And to get those things, you needed just one thing: a Naval Observatory. And in 1842, the US got one. In an ironic note, this new center of accuracy and precision was initially given two names that were used interchangeably; it was both the “National Observatory” and the “Naval Observatory”.

Whatever it was called, this new center was a major improvement over the ramshackle collection of maps and star charts that the Navy had made do with before. Using a telescope, the US Naval Observatory set out to chart the stars with as much precision as they could. They then used the star charts to develop ephemerides tables which were books containing the rising and setting times of those stars at a specific point on the Earth. Using those tables, they were able to do two things. First, they checked the clocks that went out on every US Navy ship before and after they went on a voyage. That allowed the Navy to improve its navigation and to estimate the amount of error in their charts. Second, it allowed the ships’ captains to determine where they were at any point in time with just a 3 mile error.

The outside of the US Naval Observatory hasn't changed much in 178 years

The outside of the US Naval Observatory hasn’t changed much in 174 years. The gold ball still drops every day at noon to tell the ships in the harbor what time it is. (Image courtesy US Navy)

It wasn’t long before the US Naval Observatory took the first radical step that would define its legacy. At the 1853 Brussels Conference, the US proposed that all nations share their ocean charts for the good of all. Up until that time, nations had jealously guarded their data in the hopes that it might provide them with some advantage during a war. After a lot of talking, the US convinced the rest of the world that what made nations powerful wasn’t war; it was peace and trade, and for that, everyone needed good maps. Soon the nations were sharing the data and the oceans were mapped in greater detail than ever before – and trade was better than ever before.

This is the telescope at the US Naval Observatory that discovered the moons of Mars in 1877

This is the telescope at the US Naval Observatory that discovered the moons of Mars in 1877 (Image courtesy US Navy)

That radical approach continued through the years as the US Naval observatory organized scientific expeditions to watch eclipses and transits and planets (they discovered the moons of Mars) and then shared the data with everyone, free of charge. Perhaps the most notable example of the US Naval Observatory’s radical ideas started in 1960 when they launched a series of satellites into low Earth orbit where they provided US Navy ships with navigational fixes once an hour. In 1978, the first of the new NAVSTAR-GPS (later shortened to just GPS) satellites was launched; within a decade, their data would be made freely available to civilians as well as the military. Thanks to them, we now more more things around the globe faster and safer than ever before.

LEDA 89996 is a spiral galaxy (Image courtesy NASA)

LEDA 89996 is a spiral galaxy
(Image courtesy NASA)

And it all started with a bunch of US Navy officers peering through a telescope, wondering what that little light was. If you’d like to join in on the fun, then why not head over to Galaxy Zoo? Believe it or not, there are still lots of things to discover out in space and the US Naval Observatory (and many other groups) would like your help doing it! At Galaxy Zoo, you’ll look at images of galaxies and try to decide what type they are. That data will then help us understand how the universe has changed over time and what might be next – and maybe even how to improve our GPS even further. To learn more, turn your scope to:

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