September 19 – C H F Peters

Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters  was born in Koldenbüttel (which was in Denmark at the time) on September 19th 1813, and became a big name in asteroid spotting, finding 48 in all, which makes him second in the all-time list of visual asteroid discoveries after Johann Palisa.

Peters was a bit of a radical in his youth, and while living in Italy his attempts to avoid the attentions of the authorities ended up with his fleeing to Turkey, where he made the acquaintance of the American ambassador, and before long found himself across the Atlantic mixing with the Harvard scientific community, and speaking in front of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Rhode Island.

C H F Peters

Peters settled down at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, as professor of astronomy, and as we have been hearing in this blog at irregular intervals all year, he made good use of their large 13½ inch refractor, working on sunspots by day and looking for asteroids at night.  I’m not sure when he slept.

His work was greatly aided by a supplement added to his rather meagre salary by a local businessman, who had the college observatory re-named after himself in return (to the Litchfield Observatory).  

Peters discovered his last asteroid, 287 Nephthys, at the age of 76, less than a year before his death.  He died on his way to the observatory, on July 19th 1890.

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Asteroid 20 Massalia was discovered twice.  It was first spotted on September 19th 1852 by Annibale de Gasparis in Naples, and then again the following night by Jean Chacornac in Marseille.  Chacornac, despite being second, got his report of the discovery in first, so he got to choose the name.

Massalia is an S-type asteroid of about 145 km in diameter, and has a family of similar asteroids named after it, all at 1:2 resonance with Mars. Orbital resonance is something I keep saying I’m going to write about eventually (but not yet).

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Asteroid 48 Doris is a large main belt asteroid, and one of two to be spotted on September 19th 1857 by Hermann Goldschmidt.

The Doris after whom the asteroid was named was an Oceanid (a daughter of Oceanus and Tethys).  She had one son and fifty daughters, collectively known as the Nereids after their father Nereus.  She was Achilles’ grandmother.

Doris and Hippocamp

Doris and Hippocamp

Today’s accompanying visual aid shows a rather sour-looking Doris riding a hippocamp (literally “horse monster” in Greek).

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Asteroid 49 Pales was the second asteroid to be discovered on September 19th 1857 by Hermann Goldschmidt. It’s a C-type, about 150 km in diameter, and completes an orbit of the Sun every 5.44 Earth years.  There is also a certain amount of light curve evidence to suggest it may be a binary system.

Pales was the Roman god or goddess (the gender is uncertain) of shepherds and livestock.  He/She had a festival on April 21st, probably approached with dread by shepherds, who were expected to symbolically purify their flocks by dragging a sheep through a bonfire.

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The winner of the “all-time shortest name for an asteroid” award goes to 85 Io, discovered by the birthday-boy himself, C H F Peters, on September 19th 1865.  It is mostly a fairly unremarkable C-type body of about 170 to 180 km wide, orbiting the Sun at about 40,500 miles per hour, in the midst of the Eunomia asteroid family, to which, by the way, it is unrelated.

Io  was a nymph and priestess of Hera, who was turned into a heifer by Zeus to hide her from his wife (unsuccessfully).  I may well talk more about her on January 8th, anniversary of the discovery of the more famous Jovian moon of the same name.

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112 Iphigenia is another large and dark C-type asteroid, with a longer rotation period than most (over 31 hours) discovered by C H F Peters on his 57th birthday, September 19th 1870.  Does anybody else get the impression he didn’t spend too much time celebrating his birthday?

Iphigenia was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who may have been sacrificed to Artemis by her father in order to expedite safe passage to the Trojan War for his fleet.  Then again, if you’ve ever read “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, she may not.



The final accompanying artwork today is entitled Iphigenie.  It is by the German classicist painter Anselm Feuerbach (1829 – 1880), and is one of two studies of the subject by him.  This one is from 1862.

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