In the first of my “Out Of This World” series about astronomical objects and features on other planets named after people I mentioned that all of the names used for features on Venus are female.
This became the subject
of an opera by lesbian composer Sorrel Hays. The ultimate result was called
“Mapping Venus”, and it was originally inspired by a NASA space mission called
the Magellan Project.
Because Venus is
shrouded in a thick cloud of acid vapour it has been impossible to see any
surface features with earth-bound telescopes. The only way to see what was on
the planet’s surface was to land probes on it, or by obtaining radar data
collected by an orbiting spacecraft. In 1978 NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter
produced the first map of the surface using radar. Once features could be
identified the task of naming them began.
The naming of all
astronomical and planetary bodies is the responsibility of the International
Astronomical Union. It is they who authorise the names of the asteroids I’ve
been listing in my “Out Of This World” mini-series. It is also they who decided
to name all the features on Venus after women, both real and mythological.
By 1989 there was a
desire to make better maps of Venus, so the Magellan probe was launched. It
arrived at Venus in 1990. The resulting radar images created a more detailed
map and revealed a lot more features to name.
Among the lgbt women who
have had features on Venus named after them are:
Jane Addams (1860-1935),
social reformer and Nobel Peace Prize winner,
(1906-1975), dancer and entertainer,
Aphra Behn (1640-1689),
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923),
Karin Boye (1900-1941),
Willa Cather (1873-1947),
Simone de Beauvoir
(1840-1912), pioneer female physician,
Frida Kahlo (1910-1954),
(1858-1940), novelist, first female Nobel Literature Prize winner,
Margaret Mead (1901-1978),
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967),
writer and art patron,
In 1995 Sorrel Hays was
commissioned to compose a piece by Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne for their
experimental drama department. This is
just one of 8 commissions Sorrel received from them since 1983, and the new
commission evolved into what was to be her most ambitious project to date.
The commission resulted
in the radio opera “Dream in Her Mind”. Taking NASA’s Magellan project as the
starting point Sorrel created an ethereal gathering of a group of famous women
from history on the planet itself.
Chief “surveyor” and
cartographer of this gathering is Gertrude Stein who encourages the
other women to choose which part of the planet they prefer. In the opera Sorrel
includes text from Stein and other female writers who gather on Venus –
Hildegard of Bingen, Simone de Beauvoir and Emily Dickinson, among others – to
explore female consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of the women who gather on
Venus is this musical work do now have actual features on the planet named
“Dream in Her Mind” was
developed into the larger work called “Mapping Venus”.
One of the main features
in Sorrel’s work is the use of electronic techniques including synthesisers and
pre-recorded sound. In this she often works closely with her partner Marilyn
Reis, who is one of the first female audio engineers to make a mark in a