How a Teenaged Astronomer Made an Astounding Discovery

Fagjun | Published 2017-11-04 04:21

Over a hundred years ago, a relatively unknown teenager from Spain documented a rare solar flare. Though mostly forgotten in the past century, the teenager is now recognized to have made history.

Valderrama's sketch of the rare solar flare he observed [Image by Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute]



This teenager is Juan Valderrama y Aguilar, and you probably haven’t heard of him. That’s okay though, you’ll hear about him now. He was an amateur astronomer who lived in Madrid in the 18th century. In 1886, he was able to observe and record a very rare, very bright solar flare. Valderrama was only the third one to ever record such an event. His work about what he witnessed was also published in the French scientific journal L'Astronomie. However, Valderrama and his work unfortunately faded into oblivion, though his was a significant find.


Now, though, Valderrama is set to take his rightful place in the history of astronomy. A group of Spanish astronomers were able to discover his writings as they researched existing historical records of observations of the sun.

Valderrama’s Solar Flare

A white-light solar flare capture on December 14, 2006 [Image by NASA/JAXA]



The researchers discovered a sketch that Valderrama did of the solar flare he witnessed. The then-teenager was able to observe the flare with just a small backyard telescope that had a 6.6-centimeter aperture as well as a strong enough filter that would allow him to look at the sun. He was diligent in making observations and making logs of them in his journal. On September 10, 1886 the young amateur astronomer’s diligence paid off--big time.


"In the eastern region of the southern hemisphere a huge, beautiful sunspot was formed from yesterday to today," Valderrama wrote. "By looking at it carefully I noticed an extraordinary phenomenon on her, on the penumbra to the west of the nucleus, and almost in contact with it, a very bright object was distinguishable, producing a shadow clearly visible on the sunspot penumbra.


"This object had an almost circular shape, and a light beam came out from its eastern part that crossed the sunspot to the south of the nucleus."


Valderrama then drew a sketch of the solar flare, which still exists today. He sent this and other information about his observations to the journal L’Astronomie. His findings were published by the journal soon after he sent them in.

Knowing the Teenaged Astronomer

A photo of the September 10, 1886 solar flare by the Ogyalla observatory, with Valderrama's solar flare indicated on the solar surface [Image by Vaquero et al, Sol Phys 2017]



Valderrama and his work were truly remarkable. He was a young, teenaged amateur who was operating a small telescope, unlike the fancier, more elaborate telescopes that astronomers of his time used. However, he was determined and very diligent in recording his observations, and it paid off.


"It is extraordinary that in the Spain of the 19th century, a 17-year old kid would make such a scientific discovery, and it is even more impressive that he had the courage of submitting it for publication to a foreign scientific journal," says Jorge Sánchez Almeida, one of the researchers.


Despite getting forgotten by history, Valderrama did go on to have a career in astronomy. His published findings were just the beginning. He later became the director of Santa Cruz de Tenerife’s meteorological observatory. However, not much else is known about the teenaged astronomer and the man he grew into. To address this, Almeida and his colleagues are working on a biography for Valderrama.

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