April 13 – Discoverer 2

Discoverer 2 was launched on April 13th, 1959 from Vandenberg Air Force Base into a 239 x 346 km polar orbit via a Thor-Agena booster. It was a large cylindrical satellite, 1.5 metres in diameter, 5.85 metres long, and a hefty 3800 kg, designed to gather data for use in future missions, and to attempt ejection of an instrument package from orbit for recovery back down here.  This part of the plan was attempted on 14 April 1959, when a reentry vehicle was ejected, with the idea that it would come down somewhere conveniently near Hawaii for recovery.  Unfortunately, due to a malfunction, reentry was over the north polar region, and the capsule remains officially unrecovered, although there are those who say Soviet agents got to it first.  It has been suggested that this episode was partly the inspiration for Alistair MacLean’s novel, Ice Station Zebra.

Discoverer 2 Recovery vehicle being attached to the Thor-Agena launcher (image credit: USAF).

Discoverer 2 Recovery vehicle being attached to the Thor-Agena launcher (image credit: USAF).

Discoverer 2 successfully gathered a great deal of data on propulsion, communication, and stabilization. It was the first satellite to be stabilized in all three axes, and the first to be maneuvered by commands from Earth.


1906  –  Discovery of asteroid 598 Octavia by Max Wolf.  Octavia is a C-type asteroid of approximately 72 km diameter.  It was named for the prominent Roman noblewoman Octavia the Younger, sister of the emperor Augustus, fourth wife of Marc Antony, and great-grandmother of Caligula.  Octavia’s marriage to Marc Antony only lasted a few years before he abandoned her in favour of an old girlfriend, Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson (National Gallery, London).

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson (National Gallery, London).

In today’s picture, supposedly an actual historical event, Octavia is seen swooning on hearing Virgil reading a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid.  The book contains details of the famous people encountered by Aeneas in the underworld, one of whom is Octavia’s son Marcellus (by her first husband), who had died at the age of nineteen.  The shock of hearing it is supposed to have caused Octavia to have fainted with grief.


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