Friedrich Bessel: German Astronomer

Born to a civil servant on July 22, 1784, Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel would grow up to become a well-known figure in the world of astronomy. Growing up in Minden, Westphalia (presently known as Germany), Bessel attended the Gymnasium in Minden for four years before he left school at the age of 14. What happened in the years to follow would shape the man he wound up becoming.

After performing poorly in school, Bessel left Gymnasium in Minden to become an apprentice at a commercial firm of Kulenkamp that dealt with imports and exports. It was there that he cultivated an interest in the different countries that the firm had business transactions with. During the evenings, Bessel spent his time studying geography. His attention would soon shift to learning more about navigation and locating ships at sea. In the end, all of these circumstances led to a career in astronomy.

One of the things that Bessel was interested in during his studies of space was Halley’s Comet. In 1804, he wrote a paper on the comet, which took into account the observations of Thomas Harriot. He used these assessments to determine the orbit of the comet. When he was finished, Bessel sent his paper to Olbers, a significant German astronomer at the time. Olbers thought that Bessel should pursue this line of work. In the end, Olbers pushed Bessel to have the final paper published.

After the paper became public, Bessel started to make quite a buzz within the astronomy field. He enjoyed a variety of titles and recognition, including an appointment as director of the Konigsberg Observatory and professor of astronomy at the Albertus University in Konigsberg. Bessel held the above positions until his last days.

During his time at the Observatory, Bessel is known for calculating the exact positions of more than 50,000 stars. However, he gained a great deal of acclaim for becoming the first person to determine the distance of a star, 61 Cygni, from Earth. With precise measurements, he was able to indicate the orbital variations of Sirius and Procyon.

As for his personal life, Bessel married a woman named Johanna Hagen in 1812. They had one son (named Wilhelm) and three daughters (Marie, Elisabeth and Johanna). It would be the death of his son Wilhelm in 1840 that would mark the decline of Bessel. His health started to fail and on March 17, 1846, Bessel succumbed to cancer while in Konigsberg, Prussia (the land now called Kaliningrad, Russia).

During his lifetime, he earned a handful of awards for his achievements. In 1812, he earned the LaLande Prize from the Institut de France. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1823) and Fellow of the Royal Society (1825). In 1840, he was given the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In his honor, the Crater Bessel (on the Moon) is named after him, as well as an asteroid called 1552 Bessel.