Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)

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Mystery Object, 07 August 1921

On Sunday 07 August 1921, Harvard College Observatory received the following telegram:

Star-like object certainly brighter than Venus three degrees east one degree south of Sun seen several minutes before and at sunset by naked eye. Five observers. Set behind low clouds. Unquestionably celestial object. Chances favour nucleus bright comet, less probably nova.

The then Director of Lick Observatory, Professor Campbell, had sent the telegram. Campbell, along with his wife and four guests, including Professor Henry Russell (of Hertzsprung-Russell diagram fame), had been watching the sunset at his official residence on Mount Hamilton. Just before the Sun set, one of the guests, Major Chambers, inquired What star is that to the left of the Sun? A second guest commented that he had been looking at the object for several minutes but had not mentioned it, believing it to be a well known object. The attention of Campbell and Russell was now drawn to the object. Campbell thought that the object was Mercury; Russell disagreed, and proceeded to look up the position of Mercury, proving his doubt to be correct. No-one was able to offer an explanation for the object. Observers at Lick Observatory searched for it in vain for the next two days.

Over the next few weeks, reports of the object were published in several scientific journals, providing confirmation of its reality. A week after the sighting by Campbell and his guests, an English amateur astronomer, Mr S Fellows, wrote from Wolverhampton to English Mechanic and World Of Science. Fellows had been looking for Jupiter and Saturn on 07 August. He saw a bright object above the area where the Sun had recently set. The object was about 6° from the Sun, had a reddish tinge and was elongated towards the Sun. Nature published a second report, by Colonel Marwick, a month later: observers in Dorset had seen a bright object about 4° from the Sun on 07 August.

Further reports came to light during following weeks. A report from two astronomy students was read at a meeting of the BAA in November: A bright object was observed before sunrise on 06 August about 22° west of the Sun. The position of the object was estimated by alignment of distant landmarks. Subsequent theodolite measurements from the original observation site using these landmarks gave a more accurate estimate of the position of the object. Some doubt exists about this report as it was made some three months after the event.

The exact nature of the object remains unknown. Several theories were put forward. One idea was that it was a nova. However, Campbell rejected this theory as the object was too far from the plane of the galaxy. E E Barnard (famous for his comet discoveries) was of the opinion that the object was a comet, whose orbit meant that it was only visible in daylight. Another possibility is that it was a minor planet which happened to make a particularly close approach to the Earth.


R Baum, The Planets: Some Myths And Realities, David & Charles, 1973.

Roy Gooding