August 31 – Édouard Stephan

Birthday boy Édouard Jean-Marie Stephan was born on August 31st, 1837, in Sainte Pezenne, a commune on the outskirts of the town of Niort, in the Poitou-Charentes region of France.tephan discovered two asteroids, 89 Julia and 91 Aegina, both of which have been featured in these pages. But it was on the deep sky that he focused much of his attention, discovering more new nebulae than most, and the now famous (as groups of galaxies go) Stephan’s Quintet.

His work did not go unnoticed, and in 1884 he was awarded the Prix Valz by the French Academy of Sciences. A report on the award in the American journalScientific News described him as “a savant whose discovery of seven hundred nebulae does honor to French astronomy”.

Édouard Jean-Marie Stephan

Édouard Jean-Marie Stephan

Stephan would have been in good company at the awards ceremony (I have no idea whether they had one or not), as that year’s physics prize went to the greatHenri Becquerel, co-discoverer of radioactivity.

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August 30 – Edward Mills Purcell

Edward Mills Purcell, born August 30th 1912 (died March 7th 1997) was supervisor of the Harvard team responsible for detecting the elusive 21 cm line of neutral galactic hydrogen.

They achieved this by using a home-made horn antenna, built at a cost of just $500, and installed outside the Lyman Lab at Harvard.

Discovery of the 21cm line was important because it allowed radio astronomers to peer through the Earth’s atmosphere with minimal interference and calculate the rotation curve of the galactic spiral arms.

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Asteroid 217 Eudora is yet another large main belt asteroid, discovered by Jérôme Eugène Coggia at Marseilles on August 30th 1880. Very little of interest (except to the most hardened asteroid nuts) is known about it, except that it is probably carbonaceous, and rotates every 25 hours or so.

Eudora was a Hyad. The Hyades were daughters of Atlas (and either Pleioneor Aethra, depending on your source). They were sisters of the Pleiades and the Hesperides, and specialised in the bringing of rain (because the beginning of the rainy season was thought to coincide with the arrival in the sky of the cluster of stars into which they were transformed).  The name Hyades is an odd one.  You might think it comes from “hyein” (to rain), but it actually derives from “hys” (swine). Eudora, by the way, means “good gift”.

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The Astronomical Netherlands Satellite (Astronomische Nederlandse Satelliet) is probably the only Dutch satellite I’m aware of.  It was launched on August 30th 1974 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, on a 20 month joint Dutch/NASA mission to measure UV and X-ray sources.

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1984  –  First flight (mission STS-41-D) of the space shuttle Discovery.

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August 29 – Margaret and 74 Galatea

Margaret (or Uranus XXIII) is, so far as I know, the only prograde irregular satellite among Uranus’ collection of, at last count, 27. It was discovered on August 29th, 2003 by Scott S Sheppard and David Jewitt using the 9.3m Subaru telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

A further satellite of Uranus was also confirmed on this day, but as the first sighting of S/2001 U2 (now known as Ferdinand) was an unconfirmed glimpse on August 13th 2001 we shall say no more about it for the next 50 weeks.

Margaret is named after a minor character in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. She is the servant or chamber-maid of Hero, the beautiful daughter of Leonato.

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74 Galatea (discovered August 29th, 1862) was the third of five asteroids to be discovered by the German astronomer Ernst Wilhelm Leberecht Tempel (comets were more his thing – he found an impressive 21!).

Galatea is a large, dark, C-type main belt asteroid, and if it seems as though every asteroid I mention fits that description it’s because 75% of all known asteroids are C-types, and the main belt contains 93% of all the numbered minor planets.

Pygmalion and Galatea (by Falconet)

Pygmalion and Galatea (by Falconet)

Two possibilities exist for the choice of the name Galatea. Ovid tells us on the one hand that it was the name of the ivory statue carved by the sculptor Pygmalion, with which he fell in love. But on the other hand he also uses the name to describe a nereid (sea nymph) whose lover, the river spirit Acis was killed by a boulder thrown by Galatea’s jealous suitor, Polyphemus the cyclops. Ovid omits to discuss what kind of aim a cyclops would have.

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August 28 – Enceladus and Alcock

Enceladus was discovered on this day in 1789 by William Herschel. This 500km diameter moon of Saturn has been proven recently to have the most impresive volcanoes in the Solar System. They are cryovolcanoes, so what comes out is cold (in this case water), and study of them has shown that they have been able to project water as far as Saturn itself, as well as providing enough ice to make up the parent planet’s “E ring”.

Enceladus (image credit: NASA)

Enceladus (image credit: NASA)

Enceladus venting, probably as a result of hydrothermal activity.  (Image: NASA/JPL/SSI)

Enceladus venting, probably as a result of hydrothermal activity. (Image: NASA/JPL/SSI)

Enkelados was one of the Gigantes, children of Uranus and Gaia. This particular one, for his sins, was wounded in battle by Athene and buried under Mount Etna.

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George Eric Deacon Alcock MBE was born in Peterborough on August 28th 1912, and became a committed observational astronomer from a young age. He was elected a full member of the BAA in 1936, but had become a member of the meteor section at 18 (shortly after Patrick Moore had joined at age 11).

Alcock spent 20 years watching for meteors before deciding to go after a comet. He also found time to get married, fight a war, and discover, independently of Will Hay (yes, the comic actor) the White Spot on Saturn. His method of discovering at first comets, later novae, was really obvious but almost impossible. Simply memorize the positions of a few thousand stars, then see if anything turns up next time you look at them that wasn’t there last time. This system eventually worked extremely well, with Alcock notching up five comets and five novae. And while this might not sound very impressive compared to some of the asteroid hunters we have met in this blog, to put it in context the last British-discovered comet prior to the announcement ofC/1959/Q1(Alcock) had been 60 years before.

Alcck’s search for a comet began as a New Year resolution. He gave himself five years to accomplish the feat (followed by a further five years and a new pair of binoculars when his time ran out). But comets turned out to be like buses, and no sooner had Comet Alcock 1959e, as it would have been known at the time (there’s been a change to the naming system since then), been discovered, three days before his 47th birthday, than along came 1959f, less than a week later. I can’t imagine how the British astronomical community must have felt to be told about two comets in a week after half a century of drought, but I imagine they were pretty chuffed.

After finding another comet Alcock turned his attention to hunting for novae, again prefering visual observation over the photographic method preferred by his rivals. In one way this actually gave him an advantage over them, as anyone who remembers waiting two weeks to get their holiday pictures back from the chemist will understand. Alcock’s first nova was Delphini 1967 (or HRDel) on July 8th 1967. This was closely followed by another, in Vulpecula, in 1968.

As the years went by, the gaps between discoveries widened, but Alcock never gave up. His last comet and nova were on May 3rd 1983 (comet C/1983 H1 IRAS-Araki-Alcock) and March 25th 1991, aged 78 (nova V838 Her).

George Alcock died on December 15th 2000.

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ALSO TODAY . . . .

Asteroid 167 Urda discovered in 1876 by Christian H F Peters.

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August 27 – 240 Vanadis

Asteroid 240 Vanadis was discovered by the French astronomer Alphonse Borelly on August 27th 1884. It is a “C” type asteroid in the main belt, about 94km in diameter, with a day lasting just over 10 and a half hours. It has an absolute magnitude of 9.0.

Vanadis is another name for Freyja, a Norse goddess associated with fertility, love and beauty. Like a lot of Norse deities, she’s a bit quirkier than your average Greek or Roman goddess. Her peculiarities include always having a boar at her side, and driving a chariot pulled by cats. It is from Freyja that those of us who use partly or wholly Germanic languages derive the name Friday. Her alternative name, Vanadis , means something along the lines of “spirit of the Vanir” (a group of deities associated with nature and fertility).

Freja, by John Bauer.

Freja, by John Bauer.

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ALSO TODAY . . . .

1962 – launch of the first successful probe to Venus, Mariner 2.

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August 26 – Voyager 2 reaches Saturn

August 26th 1981 was the date on which Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Saturn. Voyager 1 had already been and gone 9 months previously, despite being launched second, and between them the Voyager twins greatly increased our knowledge of the most beautiful of all the planets. They found, among other things, that (i) the atmosphere is nearly all hydrogen and helium (Saturn would float in water if an appropriately-sized bath could be constructed); (ii) it is a very cold place (-200 to -300°F); (iii) it’s also a bit blowy (wind speeds recorded over 1,100 mph), and (iv) it rotates every 10 hours 39 minutes and 24 seconds.

Saturn's Rings from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

Saturn’s Rings from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

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August 25 – Cupid and Mab

Today in 2003  –  Cupid and Mab, moons of Uranus, both of which had been too dim to see on Voyager photographs, discovered by Mark R Showalter and Jack J Lissauer using the Huble Space Telescope. Cupid was named after the character in Timon of Athens, and Mab after the queen of the fairies who is mentioned in Romeo and Juliet (and as a long-time fan I would also refer you to The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke on the album Queen II).  Mab has unusual hobbies. She drives her chariot (which I believe is made from an acorn) up people’s noses to enable her to influence their dreams, and she is thought to decide who gets infected by herpes simplex.

The best picture I could find of Mab.

The best picture I could find of Mab.

Neither Cupid nor Mab could be described as impressive bodies.  Cupid measures about 18 km in diameter, while Mab is thought to be about 24 km.

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Asteroid 84 Klio discovered by R Luther in 1865.  Clio (or Klio or Kleio) was the muse of history.  A daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, she had one son, to whom she gave the butchly masculine name Hyacinth. Her own name is derived from the verb kleô, meaning to celebrate or make famous.

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1889 – Asteroid 287 Nephthys discovered by C F H Peters, and is the last of his incredible haul of 48 asteroids.  Nephthys is a large, S-type main belt asteroid, and for a change is named after a character from Egyptian mythology, the daughter of Nut and Geb, and sister of Isis.

Nephthys

Nephthys

I’m going to have to do some digging on Peters, because I find it hard to believe that after 28 years of tracking the things, he doesn’t have an asteroid named after him.  I’ve found two so far named after people called Peters, and he isn’t either of them.

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Voyager 2 makes its closest approach to Neptune on August 25th, 1989.  This was the end of a bit of a purple patch for NASA.  Photographs from the outer planets had enthralled the inhabitants of this one for more than a decade, and Neptune didn’t disappoint.  Voyager 2 was able to get some great shots of the planet, including the “Great Dark Spot” which seems to have subsequently vanished. There was also time for a visit to Triton, Neptune’s volcanically active largest moon, thought to be a captured Kuiper belt object.

Neptune and Triton from the departing Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

Neptune and Triton from the departing Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

Although they didn’t know it at the time, this fly-by marked the point at which every planet in the solar system had been visited (back in the day they still had Pluto on the list).

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August 24 – Minerva

The large, dark, C-type main-belt asteroid 93 Minerva was discovered today in 1867 by the American-Canadian astronomer James Craig Watson.  Minerva was the second of his 22 asteroids.  Several occultations of stars by Minerva have been observed since discovery to give an estimated diameter of 150 km.  It has recently become apparent that Minerva is in fact a trinary asteroid, with two tiny moons (just 3 and 4km across).

Minerva was the Roman equivalent of Athena, a goddess primarily associated with wisdom, although she did have several other attributes on her curriculum vitae (or resumé if you insist) including music, poetry and magic.

Roman copy of a 1st century Greek statue of Athena (Louvre, Paris).

Roman copy of a 1st century Greek statue of Athena (Louvre, Paris).

The moons of Minerva have been given names associated with their parent.  S/(93)1 is now known as Aegis, after the animal skin worn by Athena, while S/(93)2 Gorgoneion refers to a protective amulet (of the Gorgon’s head) worn by certain deities.

Today’d second picture is the shrine to Minerva at Handbridge in Chester.  You can’t see a great deal of detail, and the surrounding stonework is nineteenth century, but it is “Grade I” listed and the only one of its kind in situ in western Europe, so it deserves a mention.

Shrine to Minerva.  Handbridge, Chester.  (Image credit: Me!)

Shrine to Minerva. Handbridge, Chester. (Image credit: Me!)

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August 23 – 124 Alkeste

Main belt asteroid 124 Alkeste is an S-type of just over 76 km diameter, discovered on August 23rd, 1872 by C H F Peters from Hamilton College in New York State. The name refers to Alcestis, daughter of the mythological Greek king Pelias, and eponymous subject of the play by Euripides which won second prize at the City Dionysia in 438 BC.

Acestis and Admetus, a fresco from the "House of the Tragic Poet", Pompeii.

Acestis and Admetus, a fresco from the “House of the Tragic Poet”, Pompeii.

The name was chosen by Adelinde Weiss, wife of the Austrian astronomer Edmund Weiss.

August 22 – 19 Fortuna

Asteroid 19 Fortuna, discovered today in 1852, is a large, dark, main-belt asteroid.  In fact, it is one of the darkest large asteroids known.  It was discovered by John Russell Hind, an English astronomer who was working at the private observatory of George Bishop, having previously been  at Greenwich.  Hind will hopefully be given the full treatment on his birthday (May 12) but for now I’ll just mention that his wife had the wonderfully Bond girl-esque name of Fanny Fuller.

Fortuna, Constanta Museum.  (Image credit: Cristian Chirita).

Fortuna, Constanta Museum. (Image credit: Cristian Chirita).

Fortuna, of course, was the Roman goddess of luck.  Being a goddess of fate as well though, the luck she brought couldn’t be relied upon to be of the good variety (an amulet mentioning her was found at Pompeii, for example).

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ALSO TODAY . . . . 

1868  –  Discovery of asteroid 102 Miriam by C H F Peters.  Miriam is named after the sister of Moses.  Back in the 1880s asteroids were named after mythological figures, so the choice caused a stir at the time, the inference being that she may not have been a real person.

1882  –  Discovery of C-type main belt asteroid 229 Adelinda by Johann Palisa.

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