Professor Zdenek Kopal (1914-1993) - from Litomysl to NASA


Last week the Moravian town of Litomysl celebrated the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of its great natives, world-renowned astronomer Zdenek Kopal. Zdenek Kopal left Czechoslovakia in 1938, after finishing his university studies. Later he studied at Cambridge and Harvard Universities. For thirty years Zdenek Kopal lectured astronomy in Manchester, England. One of the main areas of his interest were binary stars but Professor Zdenek Kopal is perhaps best known for his participation in NASA's Moon landing project. In an earlier Czech Science programme the head of the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jan Palous, spoke about Professor Zdenek Kopal's contribution to the US Apollo project.

"One of the main scientists in the Apollo project, landing on the surface of the Moon in the 1960, was Professor Zdenek Kopal. He was a professor of astronomy in Manchester. However he visited Prague frequently. And I think the researches of the soil coming from the surface of the Moon were partly performed also here by Czech scientists such as Petr Jakes also because Professor Kopal was one of the main scientists in the Apollo landing on the surface of the Moon programme."

As Jan Palous mentioned, Professor Zdenek Kopal visited his native country frequently. On one such occasion, in 1965, Czechoslovak Radio recorded an interview with him. And this is how Professor Zdenek Kopal envisaged a future space telescope, twenty-five years before the Hubble Space Telescope was actually launched into orbit.

"The mirror telescope will be three metres in diameter. Most likely, the mirror will not be made of glass but of metal because metal mirrors are better suited for work in space. It will orbit 400 to 600 kilometres above the Earth, followed at a small distance by an orbit laboratory with three observers and mechanics. The whole project was started by NASA last year. By coincidence one of my former students is the head of one of the working teams and also by coincidence, I have been invited to work as an expert consultant. It seems that barring any unexpected obstacles, the project could be launched in the first years of the next decade."