Searching beyond the Solar System

Image of a patch of night sky showing many stars and fluffy clouds.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera instrument reveals a 50 light-years-wide portion of the Milky Way’s dense centre. An estimated 300,000 stars shine in this image! Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Samuel Crowe (UVA)

Looking beyond our Solar System we can see thousands of distant stars with different colours. In the 1800s, Durham astronomer Thomas Henry Espin was famous for finding and recording thousands of stars using his 17-inch and 24-inch telescopes. He was also a priest, musician, inventor and more.

Thomas Henry Espin spent his life discovering stars. In an age before giant telescopes, Espin found and recorded over 2500 double stars and 4000 red stars. Double stars are pairs of stars that seem close together. Red stars are dying stars in the last stages of the stellar lifespan. Astronomers today use star catalogues to understand the life cycle of different stars.

Espin (1858-1934) studied theology (the nature of religious belief) at Oxford University. His interest in astronomy led him to use the University’s telescope to explore the night sky. At the age of twenty, he became the youngest ever member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Espin later became a priest in Tow Law, County Durham, where he served for over 40 years. Espin never lost his interest in astronomy. He created an observatory close to his home.

Did you know... 

There is a crater on the Moon named after Thomas Espin.

Relevance today

Astronomers nowadays use star catalogues that are made automatically using space telescopes. The best star hunter so far is the Gaia telescope which has recorded 1.8 billion stars!

An artistic picture of a spacecraft (with a disk and cylinder on top) in front of a planet and a star.

Gaia Telescope. Credit: ESA

Related artefacts

Open wooden box with circular mirror inside.

17’’ mirror made for Reverend Espin

In 1888 Espin used this 17-inch mirror in his telescope at his observatory in Tow Law, County Durham. When he upgraded to a 24-inch telescope, this mirror was put in storage.

Thanks to Alan Heslop and Gordon Percival, ex-employees of the Newcastle telescope company Grubb Parsons, the mirror got a second life. The surface was re-ground to gain a shorter focal length to make the telescope shorter. The telescope has never been finished and is in storage currently, awaiting completion.

 On loan from the Jurgen Schmoll private collection and Stephen Heslop

Front of old sketch book with hand-written title "Miscellaneous Observations 1920, Wolsingham Observatory, Tow Law, Co. Durham"

Observations taken at Wolsingham Observatory, Tow Law, in 1920 by William Milburn

This book contains William Milburn’s space observations. It also shows the light patterns of stars. He used the 17-inch telescope whose mirror is on display in this exhibition. Milburn worked with Reverend Espin at the Wolsingham Observatory, County Durham.

Small golden scientific instrument with various screws for adjustments.

Micrometer used by Espin to observe double stars

This micrometer was invented by Espin for studying double stars. A micrometer has an eyepiece with two fine wires forming a cross. Astronomers use this cross to measure the distance between pairs of stars.

An old large book entitled "Observational Astronomy" with a picture of somebody looking through a telescope.

Observational Astronomy book by Arthur Mee, 1893

This book was a present from Arthur Mee to Reverend Espin in 1897. Arthur Mee, a Scottish astronomer, made history as the first to observe the moon Titan's shadow crossing Saturn.

Double page of scientific sketches including a constellation of stars.

Sketches of double stars discovered by Espin

A double star is like a celestial duo, closely huddled in the vast sky. They can be a dynamic ‘binary pair’, drawn together by gravity, or an ‘optical duo’ where the stars look close due to the way they are seen in the sky. Reverend Espin found more than 2500 of these stellar partnerships in his lifetime.

A black and white image of spectra (rainbows), with the title "Photographic Stellar Spectra"

Photographs of spectrum of Nova Persei

A nova is the sudden appearance of a bright star-like object in the sky. These dazzling explosions can happen when stars pass too close to each other. Nova Persei was discovered in 1901. This book contains photographs of spectra. Spectra is light split into a rainbow. The photographs are by Frank McClean. McClean studied at Trinity College, Cambridge at the same time as Alexander Herschel.