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Today, Maximilian Wolf is best known for his discovery of the star Wolf 359. It’s one of our closest stellar neighbors, but it’s mainly known as the site of a battle between Starfleet and the Borg in Star Trek. Yet the star is just a small part of the German astronomer’s scientific legacy. He made contributions to our understanding of asteroids, stars, gas clouds, and galaxies.
Wolf was born 150 years ago this week in Heidelberg. He became interested in the night sky as a youngster, and when he was 16, his father built him an observatory in the back yard. At age 21, Wolf used this small telescope to discover a comet.
As a professional, Wolf became a pioneer in the use of a new technology: photography. His pictures revealed hundreds of new asteroids, as well as thousands of “nebulae” — spirals or other glowing clouds. Wolf analyzed the light of many of these objects, and found that the spirals resembled the light of stars. That helped astronomers realize that the spirals are actually distant galaxies of stars.
Wolf also used photography to discover more than a thousand faint stars that move across the sky in a hurry — an indication that they’re quite close. The catalog includes Wolf 359. Even though it’s less than eight light-years away, we can’t see it because it’s only one-thousandth as bright as the Sun. Yet today, this tiny stellar ember is the best-known discovery of Max Wolf — a pioneer in the use of photography to study the night sky.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
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