Back in the late 19th century, when astrophotography was still in its infancy, stargazers had to get creative if they wanted to take snapshots of the heavens. Luckily, there were people around like Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a talented French artist with a penchant for astronomy. Trouvelot moved to the States with his family when he was in his 20s, and is probably best known for an unfortunate incident in which he introduced the gypsy moth into North America – now a notorious pest of hardwood trees.
The upside of this mishap, though, was that Trouvelot turned to astronomy and began to draw what he saw in the night sky. For some of his illustrations – the close-ups of the planets and the Moon, for example – Trouvelot used some of the most powerful telescopes available at the time, such as the 26″ refractor at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.. For others, like his depictions of the comet and the meteor shower, Trouvelot just drew what he observed with his naked eye.
In 1882, the artist published fifteen of his drawings in a book – the Trouvelot Astronomical Drawings Manual. Here are some of my favourites, starting off with a stunning aurora and a Cyclops-esque Jupiter:
The aurora borealis (Northern Lights), observed 1st March 1872
The planet Jupiter, observed 1st November 1880
This article first appeared in the February 2012 edition of an awesome new science magazine called Guru. You can download the magazine for free here.
Please listen carefully. There is life on Europa. I repeat: there is life on Europa…like huge strands of wet seaweed, crawling along the ground…Imagine an oak tree…flattened out by gravity…Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly…”
Tendrils, stamens, waving feebly (credit: George L Smyth)
Professor Chang is stranded on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. His air supply is rapidly running out and he’s got no chance of being rescued; all he can do is die with dignity and hope that somebody hears his final radio message.
“I’ve only two requests to make…When the taxonomists classify this creature, I hope they’ll name it after me. And – when the next ship comes home – ask them to take our bones back to China.”
Fiction becoming fact
If this sounds like science fiction, well, that’s because it is. This gloomy scenario takes place near the beginning of 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C. Clarke’s sequel to his most famous novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Odyssey Two, Clarke imagines Europa to be teeming with extraterrestrial life, sustained by a liquid ocean beneath the moon’s surface. He was undoubtedly inspired by images sent back by the Voyager space probes during the late 1970s, which revealed Europa’s surface to be covered with a smooth shell of ice, raising the possibility of an underground watery ocean.
Europa has since become one of our Solar System’s most enigmatic bodies. Evidence now points to a huge ocean under its icy surface, possibly containing twice as much water as all of the Earth’s oceans combined. And where there’s water, life is often not too far away. Suddenly, Arthur C. Clarke’s story doesn’t seem quite so outlandish… Continue reading