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John Herschel in South Africa ( NGC 253, Sculptor Galaxy )

Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope

Having spent the years 1825 to 1833 cataloguing the double stars, nebulae and clusters of stars visible from Slough, in the south of England,  John Herschel, together with his family and telescopes,  set sail from Portsmouth on the 13th of November 1833 bound for Cape Town.   As detailed below, in an extract from his book, the family enjoyed a pleasant and uneventful voyage and arrived some 5 months later at Table Bay with all family and instruments in good condition.  Reading on however, one might very well think that it might not have ended so well had they but left shortly after ...

“... (iii.) Accordingly, having- placed the instrument in question, as well as an equatorially mounted achromatic telescope of five inches aperture, and seven feet focal length, by Tulley, which had served me for the measurement of double stars in England; together with such other astronomical apparatus as I possessed, in a fitting condition for the work, and taken every precaution, by secure packing, to insure their safe arrival in an effective state, at their destination, they were conveyed (principally by water carriage) to London, and there shipped on board the Mount Stewart Elpliinstone, an East India Company's ship, Richardson,Esq. Commander, in which, having taken passage for myself and family for the Cape of Good Hope, we joined company at Portsmouth, and sailing thence on the13th November, 1833, arrived, by the blessing of Providence, safely in Table Bay, on the 15th January, 1834, and landed the next morning, after a pleasant voyage, diversified by few nautical incidents, and without seeing land in the interim. It was most fortunate that, availing himself of a very brief opportunity afforded by a favorable change of wind, our captain put to sea when he did, as we subsequently heard that, immediately after our leaving Portsmouth, and getting out to sea, an awful hurricane had occurred from the S. W. (of which we experienced nothing), followed by a series of south-west gales, which prevented any vessel sailing for six weeks. In effect, the first arrival from England, after our own, was that of the Claudine, on the 4th of April, with letters dated January 1st.(iv.) ...”

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“Result of Astronomical Observations, Made During the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, At the Cape of Good Hope ... “ by Sir John Herschel, 1847

John Herschel rented a property and set up the twenty foot reflector near Table Mountain, at a site, that was then, just outside of Cape Town.

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The Twenty Feet Reflector at Feldhausen, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, 1834

This telescope was made by Herschel in England and transported, along with his other instruments, by ship to Cape Town and then inland to Feldhausen.  The telescope is a Newtonian reflector, built to William Herschel’s design, with a focal length of 20 feet and clear aperture of 18 1/4 inches ( f13 ).

The location of the telescope was established by careful survey to be: lat 33d 55’ 56.55”,  long 22h 46’ 9.11” W ( or 18.462 deg E ). 

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The site of the great telescope was memorialised by the people of Cape Town by the erection of a granite column that is still there today.

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Observations of the Sculptor Galaxy

Amongst his many thousands of observations made from Cape Town, of nebulae, clusters of stars, double stars, the sun, etc., Sir John Herschel records that he observed V.1 ( CH10 - Caroline’s Nebula - the Sculptor Galaxy ) during two different “sweeps” and gave it the number 2345 in his South African catalogue.

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Sweeps:    646 -  20th November 1835;   733 - 12th September 1836

At the latitude of Feldhausen, and on these dates, the Sculptor galaxy would have been at an altitude around 80 degrees above the northern horizon when near the meridian ( which was where the telescope was pointed during Herschel’s “sweeps” ). The sight afforded from this location, with the Sculptor Galaxy almost at the zenith, must have been significantly brighter and clearer than the Herschels had thus far been granted from its location way down near the horizon south of Slough.

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Other Obsevations by John Herschel from Cape Town

Also observed by John Herschel in 1835 were the people and animals that inhabit the moon ...

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The Great Moon Hoax of 1825 - “Lunar Animals and other Objects, Discovered by Sir John Herschel in his Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope ... “

 

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