Who Keeps Track of All the Craters on the Moon?
As lunar craters go, it is a small one—a ding from some long-ago collision. At 3,000 feet deep and roughly three miles across, it sits on the Sinus Medii, from the Latin for “Central Bay,” a holdover from when early astronomers mistook the Moon’s dark volcanic plains for bodies of water. The crater itself is named Blagg, after amateur astronomer Mary Blagg. Though her work is largely forgotten today, Blagg was a pioneer in the ever-expanding field of naming every little thing in the solar system.
Women have worked in astronomy for centuries, often without recognition, as observers, number-crunchers, and innovators. In the 19th century, American Maria Mitchell studied sunspots, discovered a comet, and was appointed professor of astronomy at Vassar College. Around the same time, Williamina Fleming waxed poetic about female astronomers at the 1893 World’s Fair and recruited roughly 20 female assistants to help her analyze photographs of stars at the Harvard College Observatory. More recently, Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief of astronomy, was dubbed the “Mother of Hubble” for her role in helping create the groundbreaking space telescope. It is hard enough for women in the male-dominated field to gain recognition for their contributions, and even harder for people like Blagg, in a support field such as planetary naming.
“I don’t think anybody is really going to get famous being involved in nomenclature,” says Tenille Gaither, a geologist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the assistant database manager for the Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, which is today the final word on the names and coordinates of all sorts of features, from mountains and plateaus to valleys and dark spots, in our solar neighborhood. “It’s not a field in which people get renown for any kind of discoveries.”
Gaither is a current steward of a particular tradition. From the 1880s to the present, women have helped define, describe, and organize the our solar system, from long-visible features on Mars to topographical features that have only recently come into view on a Jovian satellite.