Nova Aquilæ 1918

Forums History Nova Aquilæ 1918

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    Bill Barton

    June 8 2018 is the centenary of the discovery of nova Aquilæ 1918. It was first seen from the U.K. by Alice Grace Cook (1877-1958), an amateur astronomer who lived in Stowmarket, Suffolk at around 22:30 BST on the evening of June 8.


    Our Sun has a constant output of light and heat, however some other stars change with time. An extreme example of variable stars are novæ which are possibly too faint to be observed even with large telescopes from the Earth, but flare up in a couple of days to be visible even to the naked eye and this is what happened one hundred years ago. Grace Cook was just lucky enough to be one of the first people to see it. This object turned out to the be brightest of its type in the whole of the 20th century and was visible to the naked eye for at least two months. It briefly outshone all the other stars in the constellation Aquila and was nearly bright as the Dog Star, Sirius. Novæ are not to be confused with supernovæ.


    Novæ only occur infrequently, so they are known by the year they are discovered and the constellation they are seen in, so in this case the year was 1918 and the constellation was Aquila (the eagle).


    A study published in 2000 showed that Nova Aquilæ is a double star. One component is 1.2 times the size of our Sun and the other is only 0.2 times the size of our Sun. They orbit each other in around 3 hours and 20 minutes.


    Later reports showed that the initial discovery had been made from India by George Noel Bower (1885-1951), an Englishman working in the Indian Civil Service as a customs officer in Madras (now Chennai), who saw it some five hours earlier.


    Grace Cook was in the group of women who were the fist to be admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society (the UK national professional astronomical group). This had happened two years earlier in January 1916.


    Cook’s real interest in astronomy was observing shooting stars or meteors and she observed them for over twenty years from 1911 to the mid 1930’s. She also observed the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.


    Grace Cook became sufficiently famous in astronomy that in 1920 she was given a grant of $500US by the Harvard College Observatory in America.


    Gary Poyner

    The discovery of the ‘victory star’ as it was called at the time was credited to Warren Curdworth of Norwood, Mass USA.  Not because he was the first to see it, but because he was the first to report it (to Harvard).  

    Apart from Bower, Michelle Luizet of Lyon observatory France observed it at 08.40 GMAT on June 8.

    There is also a story of a Cornish fisherman seeing the Nova a whole day before anyone else, but upon reporting it to Greenwich his account was dismissed as he was a non astronomer (who might know the night sky better than a fisherman?) I remember reading the account in I think Philosophical Transactions many years ago, but despite re-checking can no longer find it.  Perhaps I am mistaken with the publication I first encountered this story, but if anyone knows about it I would very interested in where it was published!

    The Nova attracted the imagination of the public, and the attached satirical cartoon appeared in ‘Punch’ on June 19, 1918.

    Some of us still observe the Nova, myself included.  It can be seen varying slightly between magnitudes 11 and 12, but doesn’t do anything spectacular these days.  It is interesting though to consider the turbulant times in which the Nova first appeared when ‘looking’ at it through a telescope!


    Martin Mobberley

    Hello Gary,

    I think I can identify the Cornish fisherman!

    Sir Frank Dyson mentioned a letter received from W.F. Denning about the nova. Denning wrote:
    ‘It appears that the Nova was seen by Captain Piper, Fowey, on June 7, 12.45 G.M.T. He was watching for meteors, and saw a ‘pretty bright slow one shoot to just under Altair from a bright strange star on the right’. Though familiar with the constellations, he failed to identify it, and saw it again June 8, 9h 18m G.M.T. He thought it some phenomenon with which astronomers must be well acquainted. His observations have been investigated by an amateur astronomer, Mr. Τ.H.L. Hony, Manager of the Fowey Branch of Lloyd’s Bank, and he regards them as absolutely reliable. I must say that I incline to the same view. Captain Piper has been sending me reliable and interesting meteor notes for a long time’.

    This is mentioned in JBAA Vol 28 no 8 p237.


    Gary Poyner

    Hi Martin,

    Yes I know of this, but it isn’t the one I was referring too!

    Keep looking 🙂



    It is rather surprising that the BAA did not produce a Memoir about this notable event, having produced special publications for the novae of 1901 and 1912. But there was a report in the Journal, and much discussion about who the discoverer was. This report in the Journal however reported only the early observations, and of course the nova was followed by many observers into 1919 and much beyond. When I wrote up my biography of Eliot Merlin for the Journal I included many of his nova observations, made under the clear skies of Volo, Greece. He had a long series of records of the 1918 one, with spectroscopic and colour records, and a copy of all his original data was given to the VSS.

    In passing, I wanted to add that I used to know a relative of T.H.Hony of Fowey, the late Mr Viv Hony, for many years a teaching colleague at Oundle School. He taught mathematics and was also a keen amateur astronomer.

    Robin Leadbeater

    To mark the occasion I though I would take a spectrum.  It looks similar to others found in the literature from the 1980-90s


    Jeremy Shears

    That’s a very nice commemoration, Robin. Let’s hope we get an equally bright nova before long. And thanks to Bill Barton for highligting the centenary.

    Felix de Roy, one time VSS director, produced a series of articles in Ciel et Terre, Volume 36 of the Bulletin of the Société Belge d’Astronomie in 1920, covering the early course (and lightcurve) of the nova. In one of the papers he considers observations made before June 8. It’s in French, but makes an interesting read, especially the names of the great observers of the time.


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