Les reports that Curiosity Mars robotic probe to land on Mars in a crater named for a Sydney Astronomer – Walter F Gale

A view of the 154-km wide Gale Crater on Mars

A view of the 154-km wide Gale Crater on Mars, the selected landing site for the Curiosity rover. It is a mosaic of images from NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Note the five kilometre high mountain inside the crater – its resemblance to a map of Australia is uncanny and maybe it was that likeness that led the International Astronomical Union in 1991 to name this crater after an Australian astronomer. [Nick] Courtesy NASA

The choice of destination for the next NASA Mars Rover “Curiosity” has been made: the Martian crater Gale.

And here is the Sydney astronomy connection: this crater is named for Walter Frederick Gale: a banker and very prominent Sydney based amateur astronomer whose career in astronomy overlapped the later parts of the careers of John Tebbutt [famous astronomer from Windsor, near Sydney] and Henry Chamberlain Russell [Director of Sydney Observatory from 1870 to 1905].

Gale owned several telescopes including speculum metal Newtonians and refractors, and observed mainly from the inner Sydney suburb of Paddington – just 4km as the crow-flies from Sydney Observatory. He was a founding member and later President of the NSW branch of the BAA that met for years beyond count at Sydney Observatory. The BAA is nowadays known as the Sydney City Skywatchers and still meets at Sydney Observatory. At least one of the Observatory guides (Aina) is a member there and former guide Monty Leventhal is also a member.

Gale was an avid observer of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars and was one of many astronomers worldwide who observed “canals” on Mars. He was a gifted visual observer also discovered seven comets and found many pairs (double stars). Best of all, he discovered one of my favourite planetary nebulae: IC 5150 in the constellation of Grus in 1894 with a 9¼” reflector. Gale later won the Jackson-Gwilt medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935 for services to astronomy in NSW.

Here is a short biography on Walter Gale written by … Harley Wood!!!!! [Dr Harley Wood was the director of Sydney Observatory from 1943 to 1974 and this year Sydney Observatory is celebrating the centenary of his birth.]

In another curious personal connection for me, Gale’s grandfather was Charles Windeyer who was the Chief Magistrate for NSW. I spent many a long day sitting under his “bust” that adorns the wall in the No 1 Court at Central Court in Liverpool St, Sydney when I was the senior police prosecutor at that complex.

[Sydney Observatory holds an oil painting of Walter Gale, an image of which will appear in due course on this blog. There are also photos from the BAA expedition he led to Stanthorpe in Queensland to observe the solar eclipse of 1922. – Nick]

Les Dalrymple works as an astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory where you can enjoy his night-tours. He is also a contributing editor for Sky & Telescope and Australian Sky & Telescope magazine

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