Papers of Zdenek Kopal

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers include a very large quantity of correspondence, including letters from fellow astronomers in the United States and the Soviet Union, early lunar charts and glass-plate photographs of the moon, numerous drafts of papers by Kopal, and a large collection of offprints and copies of articles by other scientists on satellite programmes, lunar exploration, and co-operation between British, American and Russian astronomers.

Administrative / Biographical History

Zdenek Kopal, professor of astronomy at Manchester University from 1951-1981, was born on 4 April 1914 at Litomysl in eastern Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). His interest in astronomy developed during adolescence (he published his first paper at the age of sixteen), with a particular interest in optical telescopes. As a professional astronomer he first made his name with the study of close binary stars and the development of the numerical methods required to investigate their nature through the variation in their brightness. He began his academic career at Prague, followed by a short period at Cambridge, before moving to the USA where he taught at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during and after the Second World War. During this period, he became an American citizen and used his mathematical skills for the benefit of the US Army during the War.

In 1951 he moved to Manchester to take up the new Chair of Astronomy, and in the succeeding years he built up an international reputation for the department. At Manchester he undertook path-breaking work on the transfer of mass between separate stars in a binary system; this phenomenon remains the key to understanding many modern, often space-made, observations of violently eruptive behaviour in the stellar system. The numerical methods required for his astronomical analysis, were described in 1955 in a classic work, Numerical Analysis , which is still in use.

Around this time Kopal developed a great interest in lunar studies, and switched his energies to studying the moon. He assembled a group to take over 100,000 photos of its surface using an ancient 2 ft diameter refracting telescope of L'Observatoire du Pic du Midi in the south of France, which was renowned for its good 'seeing' capabilities. The telescope had a sufficiently long focal length of 60 ft to produce images suitable for lunar mapping. Given the great American interest in this subject, USAF provided Kopal with a great deal of money to systematically map the moon; this proved vitally important when the Apollo landings were undertaken. The project gave considerable prestige and funds to the Manchester department, and Kopal was much in demand all round the world as a space consultant. After his lunar work was completed Kopal went back to the study of binary stars. He also helped develop the subject of astronomy in the Middle East, training a number of astronomers from Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Iran. He is credited with producing 396 papers on optical astronomy. Kopal was known as a charming, highly intelligent, eccentric scientist. He married in 1938 and had three daughters. Kopal died in June 1993.


This uncatalogued collection has not been arranged into series.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader, subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The archive contains personal data about living individuals, and readers are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 in their use of the material. This finding aid also contains personal data about living individuals. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process such personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the JRUL to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately, according to the Data Protection Principles.

Related Material

The Library also holds the archives of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, Cheshire, which was active in radio astronomy.


For further information, see Zdenek Kopal, Of Stars and Men: Reminiscences of an Astronomer (Bristol, 1986) .