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Fontana, Francesco

Category: Scientist

Francesco Fontana (1580–c. 1656) was an Italian lawyer (University of Naples) and an astronomer.  The lunar crater Fontana and the crater Fontana on Mars are named in his honour.

Using a telescope he himself had constructed, he created woodcuts showing the Moon and the planets, which he published in 1646 in the book Novae coelestium terrestriumq[ue] rerum observationes, et fortasse hactenus non vulgatae. [New heavenly objects which have been observed, and which are perhaps not heretofore-known.


He is perhaps best known as being the first person to record, in 1645, a 'satellite' of Venus which a little later was named Neith. 

Neith has become a source of much controversy over the years. 

It undoubtedly existed.   It was sighted by Giovanni Cassini in 1672 and by several other astronomers in following years, see list below. It was observed up to 30 times by astronomers until 1770, when there were no new sightings and it was not found during the transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769.

Most astronomers, of course, look for objects they recognise – planets, suns, comets – but Neith may have been none of these things.  It was a genuine UFO – an unidentified flying object, without the need to speculate whether it was an alien craft!

Right:  Francesco Fontana's drawing of the satellite(s) of Venus. Woodcuts from Fontana's work (1646)

The list of very distinguished astronomers who saw Neith is extremely long, but the actual time during which it was visible was not- only about 120 years.  Given that the years in question were those of high activity for UFOs in general and many apparent skirmishes between UFOs were also recorded, some like Charles Fort have speculated that it was a kind of mother craft, a base from which smaller craft could launch during periods when the earth was closest to the star.

New Lands – Charles Fort

Unknown objects have been seen near Venus. There were more than thirty such observations in the eighteenth century, …..I know of only one astronomer who has supposed that these observations could relate to a Venusian satellite, pronouncedly visible sometimes, and then for many years being invisible: something else will have to be thought of.
If these observations and others that we shall have, be accepted, they relate to unknown bulks that have, from outer space, gone to Venus, and have been in temporary suspension near the planet.

 In 1672, for example, Giovanni Cassini found a small ‘object’ close to Venus, he saw it again in 1686.  The object was then seen by many other astronomers: by James Short in 1740, by Andreas Mayer in 1759, by Joseph Louis Lagrange in 1761, there were another eighteen observations in 1761, including one in which a small spot was seen following Venus while the planet was in a transit across the Sun, eight observations in 1764, and by Christian Horrebow in 1768.

Summary of sightings - Year, City, Person, Number of Sightings

·       1645, Naples, Francesco Fontana, 3

·       1646, Naples, Francesco Fontana, 1

·       1672, Paris, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, 1

·       1686, Paris, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, 1

·       1740, London, James Short, 1

·       1759, Greifswald, Andreas Mayer, 1

·       1761, Marseilles, Joseph Lagrange, 3

·       1761, Limoges, Jacques Montaingne, 4

·       1761, St. Neots, unknown, 1

·       1761, Greifswald, Friedrich Artzt, 1

·       1761, Krefeld, Abraham Scheuten, 2

·       1761, Copenhagen, Peter Roedkiær, 8

·       1764, Copenhagen, Peter Roedkiær, 2

·       1764, Copenhagen, Christian Horrebow and others, 3

·       1764, Auxerre, Marian, 3

·       1768, Copenhagen, Christian Horrebow, 1

But Neith came back, it would not stay away..........

And then it disappeared, or as Fort might have said – left.  Many later  astronomers failed to find any sign of it during their observations of Venus, including William Herschel in 1768.   But then they weren’t looking for spacecraft. 
Houzeau was also the first to give the object the name Neith, after an Egyptian goddess, perhaps he was closest to the truth!

Right:  The Egyptian goddess Neith bearing her war goddess symbols, the crossed arrows and shield on her head, the ankh and the was-sceptre. She sometimes wears the Red Crown of Lower Egypt.

This object also appears to have reappeared, not that professional astronomers noticed, this time it was an amateur who recorded its reappearance - Lord Wrottesley

1852 - Rept. B. A.

In the Rept. B. A., 1852-8, 35, it is said that, early in the morning of Sept. 1852, several persons at Fair Oaks, Staffordshire, had seen, in the eastern sky, a luminous object. It was first seen at 4:15 A.M. It appeared and disappeared several times, until 4:45 A.M., when it became finally invisible. Then, at almost the same place in the sky, Venus was seen, having risen above the eastern horizon. These persons sent the records of their observations to Lord Wrottesley, an astronomer whose observatory was at Wolverhampton. There is published a letter from Lord Wrottesley, who says that at first he had thought that the supposititiously unknown object was Venus, with perhaps an extraordinary halo, but that he had received from one of the observers a diagram giving such a position relatively to the moon that he hesitated so to identify. It was in the period of nearest approach to this earth by Venus, and, since inferior conjunction (July 20, 1852) Venus had been a "morning star." If this thing in the sky were not Venus, the circumstances are that an object came close to this earth, perhaps, and for a while was stationary, as if waiting for the planet Venus to appear above the eastern horizon, then disappearing, whether to sail to Venus or not. We think that perhaps this thing did come close to this earth, because it was, it seems, seen only in the local sky of Fair Oaks. However, if, according to many of our data, professional astronomers have missed extraordinary appearances at reasonable hours, we can't conclude much from what was not reported by them, after 4 o'clock in the morning

The observation describes Fontana's sighting.


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