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For the First Time, a National U.S. Observatory Has Been Named for a Female Astronomer: Vera Rubin

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory will image the entire visible night sky every few nights

Vera C. Rubin, who advanced our understanding of dark matter, operating the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. (NOAO/AURA/NSF)
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Just two years before it's slated to take its first observations of the cosmos, the much-anticipated Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) has received a new name. In an announcement made on Monday at the 235th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society, officials declared that the facility, set to achieve first light in October 2021 and begin science operations a year later, will now be known as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO). The change marks the first time a national United States observatory has been named for a woman, reports Meghan Bartels for Space.com.

For those keeping close tabs on the facility, the news may not come as a surprise. The initiative to rename the observatory has been more than six months in the making, after chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón introduced a bill arguing for Rubin’s recognition. Officials enacted the bill into law on December 20, 2019.

Dr. Vera Rubin exemplifies the remarkable contributions women have long made to science,” González-Colón said in a statement last year. “I am proud to be a cosponsor of this bill.”

Naming the observatory after Rubin is an especially fitting way to honor her work. Since the observatory’s construction was first proposed nearly 20 years ago, researchers have eagerly awaited the day the telescope begins to probe the universe for dark matter, the mysterious substance thought to hold galaxies together. Rubin’s pioneering studies in the 1970s offered some of the first evidence of dark matter's existence, and her work flipped conventional views of the cosmos on their heads. The universe, she helped the world realize, was dominated not by visible matter, but by something humans have yet to observe directly.

Her observations, however, were hard-won. In a field dominated by men, Rubin frequently battled sexism to garner respect for her work, Elizabeth Howell reported for Space.com last year. In 1965, she became the first woman officially granted permission to observe at California’s Palomar Observatory, which, at the time, housed one of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes.

Her first night at Palomar, Rubin took note of the facility’s single available toilet, labeled “MEN,” reports Kathryn Jepsen for Symmetry. The next time she came to call, Rubin drew a skirted woman and pasted her on the door, prompting the observatory to quietly introduce a gender-neutral bathroom that was fully operational by her third visit.

Within five years, Rubin had begun to uncover some of the first evidence of dark matter. She watched stars swirl around the centers of galaxies in unusual ways. According to prevailing theories at the time, the central stars should be most affected by the gravitational pull of the galactic center, and thus moving the fastest. But Rubin noted this wasn’t the case, hinting that something unobservable—what we now know as dark matter—was, in effect, weighing galaxies down.

Her discoveries constituted “one of the most important contributions to science in the past century, not only for astronomy, but also for fundamental physics,” Steve Kahn, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory director, said in a statement. Though shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Physics several times before her death in 2016, Rubin never won—an oversight many consider to be a sexist snub, reports Ryan F. Mandelbaum for Gizmodo.

In addition to studying dark matter, the VRO will also scope out near-Earth asteroids, search for interstellar objects and continue the ongoing quest to map the Milky Way. (Notably, the telescope itself will bear a different moniker: that of Charles Simonyi, who made a large private donation early on in the facility’s construction phase.)

Even as our knowledge of the universe expands, Rubin’s name will serve as a reminder that there’s still plenty of work left to do right here on Earth. Women and other minority populations remain underrepresented in astronomy and physics. Though much has changed since Rubin’s first observations, other aspects of science have been far more stagnant.

Per Symmetry’s Jepsen, in a 1989 interview with physicist and writer Alan Lightman, Rubin acknowledged that her gender had, at times, stymied her scientific career. But the bigger tragedy, she said, was “all the women who would have liked to have become astronomers and didn’t.”

Rubin spent her career measuring the forces of the universe she could not see. But her reach included a far more visible change as well: her fight for gender parity in the sciences. In a letter to one of her own female scientific mentors, Rubin once wrote, “From you we have learned … that it’s all right to be charming, gracious, brilliant, and to be concerned for others as we make our way in the world of science. … A woman too can rise to great heights as an astronomer.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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