Auguste Charlois strikes again! On January 21st, 1893, one day after 355 Gabriella (see yesterday’s blog) he discovered 356 Liguria, another large main belt asteroid (about 155 km in diameter).
The name of today’s asteroid refers to the coastal region of Italy of which Genoa is the capital. I hold Genoa in particularly high esteem as the home of the best ice cream I ever tasted.
1960 – Spacecraft LJ-1B launched carrying the Rhesus monkey “Miss Sam” to a height of eight miles. Miss Sam was in a more fortunate position than many early “astronauts”, in that her flight was to test emergency abort and recovery procedures, so getting her back alive was top priority.
Today’s asteroid, 355 Gabriella, was discovered on January 20th, 1893, by Auguste Charlois, and is yet another nod to the Flammarion family. It is a fairly ordinary main belt asteroid, and is named for Gabrielle Renaudot Flammarion, general secretary of the Société Astronomique de France, and wife of Camille Flammarion, who we have also met in these pages.
Gabrielle was a bit of a Mars buff, and now has a crater on the red planet named in her honour.
We have two quick asteroids to start us off today. Asteroid 502 Sigune was discovered on January 19th1903 by old hand Max Wolf at Königstuhl Observatory near Heidelberg. On the same day, young whippersnapper Raymond Smith Dugan, also working at Heidelberg, discovered the second asteroid of his career, 503 Evelyn (named after his mother).
On January 19th2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe to Pluto, so long ago it was still a planet at the time (and always will be for some of us). I clearly remember thinking back then that it was going to take such a long time to arrive that I’d probably have forgotten all about it, but here we are more than a decade later and the visit is now on the cusp of becoming a fond and fading memory.
New Horizons was a fairly large program by today’s standards, costing about $650m, which sounds expensive, but it’s actually only about $5 per US taxpayer, and spread over the 15 years of the project it’s a mere 33 cents a year: a bargain! The mission has also visited Jupiter, and once Pluto had been passed there was a rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object in 2019. The object chosen didn’t have a particularly catchy name at the time (2014 MU69), and was apparently also known in New Horizons circles as PT1 (and yes, it did stand for “Potential Target”). PT1 later got the nickname Ultima Thule (it’s two planetesimals stuck together with one name each) but is now officially named 486958 Arrokoth. From a typing point of view I think I prefer PT1.
The Jupiter flyby, as well as being a scientific mission in its own right, and a useful testing-ground for the instrumentation before an extended period of hibernation for the long journey to Pluto, was used to increase the speed of New Horizons by “gravity assist” to 9,000 miles per hour. I think I’ll have to get myself one. At that speed I could travel across the Atlantic to visit my friend Joanne in Arizona in about 20 minutes.
During the visit to Jupiter, New Horizons imaged the moon Callisto, and studied Jupiter’s ring system, magnetosphere, and the atmospheric conditions on the planet.
Scientific instruments on New Horizons are under the command of the Clyde Tombaugh Science Operations Centre in Colorado, and a small quantity of the ashes of the centre’s namesake, the man who discovered Pluto in February 1930, have been sent along for the ride. Tombaugh died on January 17th 1997.
Imaging of Pluto using New Horizons LORRI imager began in January 2015. Hundreds of photographs were taken of the Pluto system, enabling navigators to fine tune Pluto’s exact position, and calculate the precise distance between New Horizons and its target.
And at the time we thought these images were pretty impressive; but they were nothing compared to what we got when the Pluto system was finally reached.
See what I mean?
1747 – Birth of Johann Elert Bode in Hamburg. The “law” named after Bode uses a formula to predict the distances of the planets from the Sun. It’s great for the first six, and was hailed a success when Uranus (a name suggested by Bode) was found in the right place. Unfortunately, the existence of the asteroid belt and Neptune were not part of the plan. Bode has a comet, an asteroid (998 Bodea) and a galaxy (M81, Bode’s Galaxy) named after him (though I suspect any inhabitants of M81 might disagree).
1965 – Launch of Gemini 2 from Cape Canaveral. This was an unmanned flight, but it did include a practice ingress (clambering in) and egress (being pulled out) by crewmembers of Gemini 3. Following two occasions on which the launch assembly had to be dismantled (for hurricanes Cleo and Dora) and an aborted launch on December 9th, 1964, the eighteen minute flight took place on the morning of January 19th, 1965, and was only slightly inconvenienced by a power outage at Mission Control caused by the electricity demands of the television coverage.
221 Eos is a K class (more about this in a minute) main belt asteroid discovered by Johann Palisa on January 18th 1882. It’s about 100 km wide, weighs in at a healthy six million trillion tonnes (give or take a few hundred thousand) and is quite dim at magnitude 7.67.
Eos lends its name to an extensive family of asteroids, all sharing roughly similar orbits, and all thought to have originated from an almighty collision some time in the distant past, which the latest best guesses put at around a billion years ago. About 300 members of the family are known, all being similar to S-types, but not identical, so they get their own category, the aforementioned K-type.
Eos was named after the Greek goddess of the dawn, shown above in her winged chariot. She was the sister of Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon) and it was her job to open up heaven in the morning so that Helios could do his thing.
Also today, asteroid 468 Lina, a member of the Themis family, was discovered today in 1901 by Max Wolf and named after the family housemaid. It’s probably best if I don’t speculate as to why that might be.
Main-belt asteroid 354 Eleonora was discovered on this day in 1893 by Auguste Charlois. It’s a stony (S-type) asteroid of approximately 154 km across, rotating with a period of about thirteen and a half hours. It can reach a magnitude of +9.3 at opposition.
Stony asteroids like Eleonora can often be shown by spectroscopic studies to contain olivine, a magnesium iron silicate that becomes known as peridot when of sufficient quality to be cut into a gem (sometimes being mistaken for emerald) and pyroxenes, a large group of mineral found almost everywhere. The upper mantle of the Earth is composed mainly of olivine and pyroxene.
Eleonora is one of those titillating asteroids whose name is generally thought to be of unknown origin. But somebody must have written it down somewhere; it’s just a matter of finding it. There was, as it happens, a very famous Eleonora around at the time of the discovery: Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress, was busy making a name for herself on the stages of the world, and would have been well known to Charlois. She’s going down as a definite “maybe”.
1969 – The first ever docking between two manned spacecraft,Soyuz 4 and 5, took place on January 16th in this year. This was the first occasion on which crew were transferred from one ship to another. Back then though, it wasn’t as simple as floating through a hatch like they do on the International Space Station. Alexei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov had to go outside and clamber along from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4 if they wanted a lift home.
Looking for all the world like a space-age pram, Lunokhod 2, the second and last Soviet Moon rover, began exploring our nearby companion on January 16th 1973. It had been landed on the surface the day before by Luna 21, following a four-day journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Lunokhod’s mission was partly to help determine whether Moon-based astronomy was a realistic proposition, and partly to study and take photographs of the surface.
Lunokhod 2 provided many great shots of the surface, such as the one above showing its own tracks in the lunar dust and the Luna 21 lander in the distance, and traveled further on the Moon than any other vehicle. Which brings us to the part I find hardest to believe. Just look at the thing . . .
Okay: say what you see. Pram? Mobile bathtub? Prototype Soviet-era family saloon? Project by a class of 6-year olds to build a robotic apple-picking device? The Lunokhod rovers were indeed marvels of 1970’s engineering, mainly because one look at them leaves you absolutely convinced that they should have been smashed to smithereens on impact, (if, that is, they survived being shaken to a small pile of interesting metal shapes on take-off), and certainly should never have been able to explore an alien world. But then if you’ve ever been in a car from the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain (for example a Moskvitch or a Trabby) you’ll probably already know that anything is possible in a worker’s paradise.
One has to admire the Soviet scientists involved in the project for keeping going long after it became obvious that they had designed something William Heath Robinson would have disregarded as ridiculous. If the thing in the photograph above were presented to a news conference by NASA, several journalists would be hospitalized due to excessive laughter.
Lunokhod 2 is still on the Moon, of course, and can to this day be detected by laser ranging experiments. It is now in private hands, having been bought at auction in 1993 by astronaut’s son and computer gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott. This made him the only individual on Earth to own a spacecraft situated on a celestial body other than this one. I believe he also owns the Luna 21 lander and an actual Sputnik.
1893 – Main belt asteroid 353 Ruperto-Carola discovered by Max Wolf and named after the University of Heidelberg (full name Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, or in Latin Ruperto Carola).
1903 – Asteroid 500 Selinur discovered by Max Wolf. It was named after a Celtic moon goddess, a character in German author Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s 1879 novel Auch Einer.
2017 – Death of Gene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut (and therefore the last human at timd of writing) to walk on the Moon.
January 13th, 1877marks the dicovery of asteroid 171 Ophelia, a member of the carbonaceous (C-type) Themis family, by Alphonse Borrelly. It was one of three he discovered that year, and was named after the daughter of Polonius in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
The Themistians are one of the larger asteroid families, with close to 5000 members (still well short of the largest families though; the biggest two are the Vestians, numbering 15,000+, and the Nysians, with over 19,000 members). They orbit in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt, and are a collisional family, thought to have formed from the violent coming together of two bodies at some time in the distant past.
The accompanying illustration is by J W Waterhouse, and shows Shakespeare’s tragic heroine just before her death (she drowns, falling from a tree when a bough breaks).
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
1876– Discovery of C-type main belt asteroid 141 Lumen by Paul-Pierre Henry, or possibly his brother Prosper. This one was credited to Paul-Pierre, but in keeping with their credit sharing philosophy, the brothers never revealed which one of them actually made the find. Even while they were alive, it was impossible for astronomical journals to attach one brother to a specific discovery with any level of accuracy greater than 50%, so we have no chance now. As with several other of the asteroid discoveries of the Henry brothers, it borrows its name from a book by Camille Flammarion, Lumen: Récits de l’infini.
You can download Lumen for free these days if you like, but its a bit weird.
141 Lumen is about 130km wide, and shares orbital characteristics with the Eunomia family of asteroids, but is defined as an “interloper”, because of its composition (Lumen is carbonaceous, whereas Eunomians are stony).
Asteroid 137108, also known as 1999 AN10 was discovered on January 13th 1999 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project run by the USAF, NASA and MIT to discover and track near-Earth asteroids (NEAs).
On August 7th 2027, which is sooner than you think, it will zip past the earth at less than 250,ooo miles (that’s closer then the Moon) and should be visible in fairly modest binoculars.
1999 AN10 is part of the group known as the Apollo asteroids. These are a particularly interesting group for astronomers because they all have orbits which cross that of the Earth, making some of them potentially hazardous. The Apollos are named, as usual, after the first of their number to be discovered, 1862 Apollo, found in 1932 by Karl Reinmuth. The Chelyabinsk meteor that we all saw streaking across the Russian sky in February 2013 on dashcam footage is believed to have been an Apollo.
1901 – Discovery of asteroid 465 Alekto by Max Wolf. Alecto was one of the Furies of Greek mythology.
2003 – Launch of the Cosmic Hot Interstellar Spectrometer (CHIPS).