April 12 – 10 Hygiea

1849  –  Asteroid 10 Hygiea was discovered today by Annibale de Gasparis.  Hygiea has a family of asteroids named after it (the Hygiea family, obviously) and is the fourth largest object in the Asteroid Belt, with a diameter of about 530 km.  Unfortunately it is also quite dark, which made it difficult to see from down here in the 1840s, so despite being the fourth largest, it is only designated as number 10, because some smaller, brighter asteroids were spotted first.

The name de Gasparis decided on for the first of his nine asteroids was Igea Bourbonica (Bourbonica is an homage to the ruling family of Sicily, rather than the brown biscuits he may or may not have nibbled during his observations).  The Bourbonica bit was dropped within a few years of discovery, like the soggy end of some bourbon dunked too long by a distracted astronomer, splashing in the dark tea of history, never to be found by the spoon of fame. (It’s been a long day.)

Princess Maria Antonietta of Buorbon-Two Sicilies
Princess Maria Antonietta of Buorbon-Two Sicilies

Hygieia (I let an extra “i” creep in there because there are various spellings) was the goddess of health and cleanliness, and daughter of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.  One of her sisters, the goddess of “universal remedy” also persists to this day in the English language: Panacea.

1981  –  First flight of the shuttle Columbia (STS-1) from the Kennedy Space Centre.  Columbia completed 23 missions before the disaster of 2003.    STS-1 was the first orbital shuttle mission, lasting two and a bit days.  She only carried a two-man crew, commander John W Young and pilot Robert L Crippen.

During mission STS-1, Columbia, the most complicated machine on the planet,  attained an orbital altitude of 166 miles, 60 miles short of the total length of wire it contained.

1817  –  Death of Charles Messier, comet hunter.

1851  –  Birth of Edward Maunder, sunspot spotter.

1961  –  And finally today we celebrate the launch of Vostok 1 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, taking Yuri Gagarin on the first and shortest ever orbital manned spaceflight (once round the block: 108 minutes). As with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, this was another victory for the Soviet space program over NASA.  I blame monkeys for the delays in the West.  NASA tended to prefer monkeys for their test flights, while the Russians used dogs.  Monkeys are really hard to control, so the Americans must have wasted ages trying to train them to sit still.  If you have a rhesus monkey and a dog, and you tell them both to stay where they are, one of them is going to wander off looking for bananas, while the other waits as long as is necessary for you to produce a biscuit.  I’ll let you decide which is which.