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Astronomy Highlights

The most interesting developments of 1960 concerned Venus and Jupiter. There were also two lunar eclipses and two partial solar eclipses in 1960, and one new observatory was dedicated.

Planetary Studies

Using radio-frequency radiation, astronomers at Johns Hopkins University determined that the surface temperature of Venus must be close to 600º F. They also discovered water vapor above the cloud layer, suggesting that the Venusian clouds may be water-vapor clouds.

Observations at the California Institute of Technology Radio Observatory established the existence of a radiation belt around Jupiter, the diameter of which is about three times that of the planet. The energy contained within the radiation belt indicates that Jupiter has an appreciable magnetic field.

Project Ozma

From April to July 1960, radioastronomer Frank D. Drake turned an 85-foot National Radio Astronomy Observatory telescope toward two dwarf stars, Epsilon Eridani (in the Constellation Eridanus) and Tau Ceti (in the Constellation Cetus), with the goal of detecting a radio signal indicative of intelligent life. Unfortunately, the only meaningful signal Drake and his associates were able to pick up came from a secret military experiment on earth.

The radio telescope used for Project Ozma.
radio telescope used for Project Ozma

Satellites and Probes

Pioneer V, launched by NASA on March 11, was placed in an orbit between Earth and Venus. It approached Venus to within about 7 million miles, although Venus was in the opposite part of its orbit at the time. Between its placement in orbit and loss of contact on April 30, the probe discovered that strong solar flare activity produces severe deviations in Earth's magnetic field.

Pioneer V mounted to its Thor Able launcher.
Pioneer V

Measurements of the Doppler shift in the frequency of the signal emitted by a satellite orbiting the Earth underlie a method useful in navigation of position determination on the Earth's surface. This scheme was developed for the Transit satellites, launched on April 13 and June 22. From a point on the Earth's surface whose position is to be determined (like a ship), the observer measures the Doppler shift of radio signals from the navigational satellite. This type of navigation system has the advantage of being usable in cloudy weather.

Artist rendering of the first Transit satellite.
Transit 1-B


There were two lunar eclipses in 1960. The first, on March 13, was visible in part of the Americas and most of the Pacific area. The second, on September 5, was visible in Australia and eastern Asia.

A time-lapse photo showing the last four stages of the March 13 eclipse, as seen over Tokyo, Japan.
Lunar Eclipse of March 13

A partial solar eclipse on March 27 was visible in Australia near sunset and in Antarctica. Another partial solar eclipse took place on September 20. This one was visible in the Mississippi Valley near sunset and in eastern Siberia.

Instruments and Observatories

During 1960 a grant was made by the Ford Foundation to help build an astrometric telescope in South America that would be operated by Yale and Columbia universities.

The 120-inch reflector of the Lick Observatory near San Jose, California, was completed in 1960 and it began producing photographs of nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies almost immediately. The excellent quality of the mirror was made possible by the fact that it was ground, polished, and figured in the observatory itself so that it could be tested at the telescope under actual operating conditions.

A spiral galaxy in the Constellation Ursa Major was one of the first stellar objects photographed by the new reflector at the Lick Observatory.
galaxy as seen by Lick Observatory's new telescope

On March 15, 1960, the Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona, was dedicated. A 36-inch reflector and some smaller instruments were in operation at the time and an 80-inch reflector was under construction.

Britannica Book of the Year Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1961

Encyclopedia Astronautica
Kitt Peak National Observatory

Johns Hopkins University

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The Robinson Library >> In The Year... >> 1960

This page was last updated on October 03, 2017.