The Astronomer and the Space Probe

There is a connection between a rare pamphlet in the Burns Library and a current NASA space probe.

The John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, at Boston College, is known for the strengths of its collections in several subject areas, including Irish Studies, British and British Catholic authors, Jesuitica, fine printing, and Boston and Boston area collections. The library also has some excellent materials in many of the sciences. The Jesuitica books include works by Athanasius Kircher, S.J. (1602-1680) and books by Jesuit scientists and explorers in many fields, including biology, chemistry, physics, geology, geography, and astronomy.

Special items in astronomy include a first edition of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (1687) and a less-known edition of 1723, which has Newton’s explanation of his system of calculus (fluxiones). There is also a first edition

KIC Image 1

The first page pf the pamphlet contains an elaborate illustration: The goddess Ceres is shown in her chariot in the sky. The chariot is drawn by two snakes, and Ceres is scattering seeds for cereals. The sun with its known planets and the new “planet” Ceres are shown. In the background of the harbor of Palermo is a winding path leading up a steep hill to the observatory. In the foreground a winged cherub peers through a telescope which has the inscription “Ceres Additacio (Ceres display).” Della scoperta del nuovo pianeta Cerere Ferdinandea by Giuseppe Piazzi, QB651.P5 1802 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

of Galileo Galilei’s book on sunspots, Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari (1613). Galileo’s book was given to the library as part of the books and papers of Pasquale Sconzo, an Italian mathematician and astronomer; the collection was donated by Sconzo’s daughter, Wega Firenze. One of the items is by an author much less known than Newton or Galileo—Giuseppi Piazzi—who wrote a pamphlet that is connected with a current scientific event. In 1801 Piazzi discovered an astronomical object that is known today as the dwarf planet Ceres, and in 1802 he published the pamphlet describing the discovery: Della scoperta del nuovo pianeta Cerere Ferdinandea ottavo tra i primarj del nostro sistema solare: “On the discovery of the new planet Ceres Ferdinandea, the eighth of the primaries of our solar system.” There is no known English translation.

Ceres is currently being visited by the NASA space probe “Dawn,” which started orbiting the distant object in May 2015 and will continue sending data until March 2016. The probe was launched in 2007, reached the dwarf planet Vesta in 2011, orbited it, sent data to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and then traveled to Ceres.

Giuseppi Piazzi was not an astronomer either by training or by experience when he was appointed to the observatory at the University of Palermo in Sicily in 1787. He was born in Ponte, Italy, in 1746. He was ordained a priest as a member of the Congregation of the Clerks Regular of Divine Providence, known commonly as the Theatine order, studied Mathematics under several professors, and in 1770 was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the University of Malta. After appointments in Ravenna, Cremona, and Rome, he went to the University of Palermo as a lecturer in mathematics. In 1787 he was appointed Professor of Astronomy.

Because of his lack of education and experience in this field, Piazzi spent two years in Paris and London, where he received practical training. He also arranged for special instruments to be built for the observatory in Palermo. During his time in France and England he became familiar with many well-known astronomers, and he later corresponded with them about his discoveries.

Piazzi returned to Palermo at the end of 1797, supervised the installation of the new equipment in the observatory, and continued a star-mapping project for the Palermo Catalogue. This project required observation of stars and their apparent movements, with great precision, and this work led to the discovery of Ceres.

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An illustration of the Palermo Observatory, Della scoperta del nuovo pianeta Cerere Ferdinandea by Guiseppe Piazzi, QB651. P5 1802 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

During the night of January 1, 1801, Piazzi observed a new “stellar object.” At first he thought it might be a new star or a comet, but as he observed its movement 24 times between January 1 and February 11, he realized it was a planet (pianeta). On January 24 he wrote letters to some of his scientific acquaintances: Barnaby Oliana in Milan, Johann Elert Bode in Berlin, and Jerome LaLande in Paris. In September Piazzi published all his technical observations (ephemerides), in a scientific journal, Monatliche Correspondence. Piazzi’s pamphlet, with great detail about the observations and measurements of Ceres, was published in September 1802.


The discovery of Ceres at that time, in that location in the solar system, was not entirely unexpected. Mathematicians had predicted probable locations of as yet unseen bodies, and astronomers had observed unusual orbital irregularities that could be explained only by the existence of undiscovered objects.
At the turn of the nineteenth century there were seven known planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Observers had noticed an unusually wide gap between Mars and Jupiter, and this suggested the possibility of another planet. When William Herschel (1738- 1822) discovered Uranus in 1781, that planet was found near one of the predicted locations beyond Jupiter, and people were expecting to find something between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres was widely accepted as the fulfillment of a number of predictions.

We now know that there is indeed something between the orbit of Mars and the orbit of Jupiter: the Asteroid Belt, which contains thousands of small objects. Ceres was the first object found in this belt, and it is the largest. Objects similar in size and composition to Ceres are Pallas, Juno, and Vesta, which was visited by the space probe Dawn on its way to Ceres.

There is an astronomical search today that resembles the searches that located Ceres and Pluto. According to the Boston Globe, January 21, 2016, there is a possibility of another planet orbiting our sun. Astronomers noticed some irregularities in the orbits of some objects in the Kuiper belt, which is far beyond the orbit of Pluto, and they have concluded that there is a large planet so distant that it would take 10,000 to 20,000 years to orbit the sun. No object has yet been observed, but many astronomers will be searching for what is being called “Planet 9.” Pluto was the ninth planet until its demotion to dwarf planet in 2010. At some point a proper designation, preferably the name of a mythological figure, would have to be chosen.

As I mentioned above, Ceres is no longer designated a planet. In the mid-19th century its small size (about one fourth of our moon) raised doubts about its status, and it was called an asteroid. In the early 21st century similar questions were raised about Pluto, then the smallest of the planets, which was discovered in 1930. If Pluto is called a planet, then Ceres and some of the larger asteroids should also be called planets. It was decided to create a new designation: “dwarf planet,” and both Pluto and Ceres were put in that category in 2006.

Despite its small size and resulting identity crises, Ceres is of interest and importance for several reasons: it was the first object discovered in the Asteroid Belt; it is the largest of the objects in that belt; it is the only object in that belt whose gravity is strong enough to effect a spherical shape; it has a rock core and an ice mantle, very different from its neighbor Vesta; it has three bright spots, perhaps reflections from ice in craters; and in January 2014 (while Dawn was hastening to Ceres) the dwarf planet emitted a plume of water vapor, a unique occurrence in the Asteroid belt. Close-up photographs of Ceres may be seen at the Dawn home page: NASA Dawn Space Probe . We do not see live transmissions: the data are gathered for about a week and then sent to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where they are processed and the images are posted to the website.

As stated above, the pamphlet by Giuseppi Piazzi was received with the donation of the collection of Pasquale Sconzo. If you would like to see Piazzi’s pamphlet or other scientific holdings at the Burns, please contact the Reading Room by phone or email at (617)-552-4861 or .

  • David E. Horn, Special Projects Librarian, John J. Burns Library, Boston College


The following entries in Wikipedia were very helpful, and most of them contain bibliographies, references and links: I viewed all of them on 25 February 2016.

Dawn (spacecraft); formerly NASA Dawn Space Probe; last modified 24 February 2016.

Piazzi, Giuseppi; last modified 31 January 2016.

Ceres (dwarf planet); last modified 24 February 2016.

Uranus; last modified 14 February 2016.

Asteroid Belt; last modified 22 February 2016.

Vesta (asteroid); last modified 2 February 2016.

Other Sources

Pasquale Sconzo Papers, 1882-1985,” Finding Aid , Archives and Manuscripts Department, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Piazzi, Giuseppi, Della Scoperta del nuovo pianeta Cerere Ferdinandea: ottavo tra I primarj del nostro sistema solare (Palermo: Nella Stamperia reale 1802).

Google: Ceres + NASA leads to good results, including an article in the New York Times, September 30, 2015, about Dawn’s mapping of Ceres, and recent photographs.


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