From early civilizations until today man has sought to explore and discover what is beyond our world. From the ancient discovery of the wandering stars to the thousands of potential new planets found this decade, mankind has sought to make many astronomical advances. However some of these ‘breakthroughs’ that occurred throughout history happened to be more phantom than fact.

  1. Mysterious planet Vulcan

Published in 1859 were revamped works by mathematician Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier (1811-1877). He suggested that Mercury’s orbit was so eccentric that it must be affected by another celestial body. La Verrier had become famous as he also had discovered the planet Neptune in 1846. His discovery of the gas giant planet involved completing careful calculation of Uranus’ orbit and predicting correctly that there was another planet affecting its orbit. So using the same method of discovery, Le Verrier’s claims that a small world was located between Mercury and the Sun caused many astronomers around the world to turn their telescopes to the sky in search for this planet called Vulcan. Another big believer in Vulcan’s existence was French amateur astronomer Edmond Modeste Lescarbault (1814-1894) who claimed to have seen this planet transit across the Sun in March 1859. Many ad-hoc observations of Vulcan were recorded from some credible sources but predictions of when this planet was going to be visible never came true.

Image of Urbain-Le-Verrier

Urbain Le Verrier: “Discoverer” of Vulcan, are there pointy Spock ears behind his hair?  (image credit: via wikimedia.org)

 

So what caused this?  In 1915, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity explained that the changes in Mercury’s orbit were a result of the Sun’s gravitational effect, and that the planet’s orbit could be bent at its closest approach to the Sun.  The first report by Lescarbault of Vulcan’s transit was widely disputed by French astronomer Emmanuel Liais. Liais claimed to be using more powerful telescope at the same time looking in the same area and seen nothing on the surface of the Sun. When observing the Sun through a lens or looking very close to it can be difficult to see detail without proper filters and it is dangerous to do. Also it’s possible that the light from the Sun produced false reflections inside Lescarbault’s telescope, thus resulting in seeing something that wasn’t really there.

2. Neith,  Moon of Venus

In 1672, it was believed that the moon of Venus had been discovered. Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) noticed this ‘moon’ but waited until 1686 before seeing it again to make a formal announcement of Venus’ moon.  Over the next 200 years many astronomers searched and saw this moon. One observer named Abraham Scheuten (1707-89) reportedly saw (when observing the transit of Venus in 1761), a dark spot following Venus across the Sun. Another J.H Lambert (1728-1777) had even calculated the length of time it took to orbit the planet (11 days). Further observations were made however other famous astronomers like William Herschel (1738-1822) failed to find anything.

In 1884, M.Hozeau thought he had stumbled across the explanation that the mysterious object was not a moon but in fact a small planet which he named Neith.  According to mythology, Neith was an Egyptian goddess who never revealed under her veil to any mortal, appropriate name for the object that astronomers has spent hundreds of years searching for.  In actual fact many of these astronomers could have been looking at stars which were thousands of light years away from Venus. Another possibility for these ‘observations’ are reflections in the telescope lens. Modern telescopes today have never found any trace of a satellite orbiting Venus.

Video of 2012 transit of Venus- perhaps this is what Scheuten saw?

 

3.Canals of Mars

During the opposition of Mars in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1830-1910) discovered around 40 canali on Mars as well as seas and continents. Canali translated means channels however this was mistranslated to mean canals, in turn creating speculation that alien life had created a water system on Mars, an idea made popular by Percival Lowell. Percival Lowell (1855-1916) is often best known as the American astronomer who believed alien life had created canals on Mars. He believed that an irrigation system had been created allowing water from the ice caps to travel to the rest of the planet. Lowell does regain a little credibility by predicting Pluto’s existence in 1915, but it wasn’t discovered for another 15 years.  Detailed imaging of Mars from the 1960s has not revealed any complex water systems or canals but in fact the canali were caused by the landscape creating an optical illusion.

 

The canals took a long time in die (1), The US Air Force Aeronautical Chart and Information Center based its MEC-1 Mars map on data current as of 1962. ( Image credit: U.S. Air Force/Lunar and Planetary Institute)

 

Image of mariner-at-mars

The canals took a long time in die (2). NASA artwork from 1965 showing Mariner 4 arriving at Mars with (sort of ) canals. (Image credit: NASA)

4. Mountains of Venus

Venus is a neighbouring planet to us here on Earth. With the naked eye it is the brightest object in the sky other than the Sun and the Moon, so it is no surprise that this was a destination for telescopes in the quest for a greater understanding of our Solar System.  During the 17th century bright spots were spotted on top of Venus’ clouds. By 1782, Johann Schröter (1745-1816) after repeatedly seeing a bright mark near the bottom of the planet’s disk determined that these bright spots were believed to be the tops of mountains peeking through the clouds. Schröter believed that some of these mountains were 43km (27miles) high. At the time William Herschel disputed these claims blaming the speck of light as an imperfection in Johann’s telescope.  It wasn’t until radar images of Venus were made that proved that there definitely was no sky-scraping mountain range on Venus.

image of venusian mountain

[Image of Venus mountain Sapas Mons, almost a mile high. Schroeter was only 26 miles out on his estimation (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

5.Moons of Saturn- Chiron and Themis

Herman Goldschmidt (1802-1866) was originally a painter who became interested in astronomy after attending a lecture by Urbain Le Verrier (See Vulcan above). During his career he discovered 14 asteroids and he believed he had discovered the 9th moon of Saturn in 1861 which he named Chiron. However this moon never existed.

In 1905, American astronomer William H. Pickering (1858-1938) claimed he had discovered a tenth moon for the gas giant Saturn. Only six years earlier Pickering had actually successfully discovered Saturn’s 9th moon Phoebe. Despite no other astronomer seeing this moon,  which was named Themis, some determined that it made sense that a 10th moon would exist. In 1906, Pickering was awarded the Lalande Prize, awarded for scientific breakthroughs in the world of astronomy by the French Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, Pickering had not discovered the 10th moon and the next real satellite of Saturn (Epimetheus) was not discovered until 1966. ( In the 1970’s, SF author John Varley rediscovered Pickering’s Themis and mentioned it in his novel Titan as a sighting of the gigantic alien spacestation where most of the story takes place- Ed.)

Saturn’s 9th moon Phoebe. (Image credit: NASA)

6. Earth’s other moons

Our planet has only one natural satellite, the Moon. However there have been many claims that there might be other moons in orbit around our planet. French astronomer Frederic Petit (1810-1865) announced he has discovered a second moon in 1846. Other French astronomers also claimed to have seen it. He suggested that this moon came as close to the Earth as 11.4km or 7miles. However, this claim was disputed by many other astronomers at the time. This is definitely an impossibility as factors such as air resistance would pull this moon out of its orbit and towards the Earth.

In 1898 scientist Georg Waltemath, claimed that the earth did not just have two moons but a series of mini moons. He also claimed that they did not reflect much light from the sun and would be hard to spot without a telescope. Failures to predict when these moons would be visible let to discrediting the theory of extra moons.

7.Planets of Barnard’s star

Planets in orbit around another star outside of our Solar System are pretty common now; over 800 have been discovered since 1995. Many of these worlds are thought to be gas giants like Jupiter. However, in the 1960s astronomer Peter Van de Kamp (1901-1995) announced he had discovered two planets in orbit around Barnard’s Star.  Barnard’s Star, a red dwarf, is not visible to the naked eye but is the 4th known closest star to the Sun. Van de Kamp used methods to measure tiny movements by the star, caused by an orbiting planet. These were checked by others to ensure accuracy. However, by the early 1970s other astronomers were failing to get the same results yet claims of new planets made its way into texts books. Unfortunately we now know that van de Kamp had not detected the first exo-planets and that the movements of the star could be directly linked to maintenance of the telescope. In theory he was correct however he lost a lot of credibility after this claim of new worlds.

Barnard’s Star: not home to the first planets discovered outside our Solar System. (Image credit:Wikimedia)

 

  1. Structures on the Moon

William Herschel finder of the planet Uranus, (mentioned already a few times so far for his logical and rational opinions on some astronomical ‘discoveries’ made) noticed red glowing lights on the Moon in April 1787. Herschel believed he had seen three volcanoes on the dark side of the Moon. We now know that this was Earth light shining on large craters on the moon, also there were reports of Aurora seen further south than normal causing an unusual glow to be seen on the moon through a telescope. This claim sparked the imagination of Johann Schroeter (who also saw mountains on Venus!) Schroeter was a believer in life outside our Earth so began sketching the lunar features. He detected many mountains and valleys as wells as lakes, industrial smog and an atmosphere on the Moon. In the 1950s other reports of structures such as bridges have been reportedly seen on the moon, however careful not to infer alien life, O’Neill editor of a New York newspaper called them natural bridges, his observations were confirmed by Patrick Moore. We know from detailed satellite mapping of the Moon by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that it’s a barren world.

 

Throughout history many astronomers have turned their eyes and telescopes to our celestial neighbours in a bid to find out more about the Universe around us. Unfortunately not all original observations turned out to be correct and we have not found evidence of other life forms. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and you never know perhaps future generations will look back at us now smugly with what they have learnt from our mistakes. However, if any lessons can be learnt from the past make sure your telescope is working properly before publishing results

(Article by Martina Redpath, Education Support Officer)


3 Comments

Rex De Silva · November 19, 2014 at 15:09

The question of what Lescarbault really saw can only be properly explained in the light of the telescope he used and his methodology. I can find no description of his telescope (Reflector, refractor etc.) in the literature, nor is there any description of his methods (Projection, some kind of filter etc,). Can someone please enlighten me on these points?

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