May 30 – Messier 12

1764  –  Discovery of globular cluster Messier 12 (NGC 6218) by Charles Messier.

Messier 12 from the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: NASA / STScl / ESA)

Messier 12 from the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: NASA / STScl / ESA)

M12 is approximately 75 light years across, at a distance from Earth of about 15,700 light years.  It can be located as a faint fuzz in the constellation Ophiuchus with good binoculars, but needs a fairly hefty telescope to bring out detail.


Extrasolar planet MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb (or just MOA-192b to its friends) was discovered orbiting the low mass red dwarf of the same name (but without the “b”) on May 30, 2008. Spotted by the MOA-II gravitational microlensing survey, it is one of the smaller known extrasolar planets (about 3 times the mass of Earth) and has an appropriately tiny parent star of about 6% the size of the Sun.


1903 – Asteroid 511 Davida discovered in 1903 by R S Dugan and named after astronomer David Peck Todd.


2007 – Saturn’s tiny moon Anthe was first spotted in Cassini images. Anthe may be part of a dynamical family with the moons Methone and Pallene.  This is appropriate if true, as they were sisters in mythology, three of the Alkyonides, who threw themselves into the sea when their father was killed by Herakles.


1963 – Happy birthday Helen Sharman, OBE, Sheffield native, chocolate chemist and first Briton in space.  She flew on Soyuz flight TM-12 to the Mir space station.  It was her only mission.


May 29 – 72 Feronia

Yet another asteroid day.  Today we have 72 Feronia, discovered on May 29 1861 by the German-American astronomer Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters, who went on to find another 47, so he must deserve a birthday shout-out on September 19.

Feronia is a large, dark main belt asteroid, about which there isn’t much to say except that it has a diameter of about 86km, a rotation period of a little more than 8 hours, and takes over 3 years to orbit the Sun.

Feronia’s namesake is a Roman goddess, variously associated with fertility, health and wildlife. She was apparently very popular among plebeians, and as I’m one myself I must remember to tweet her feast day on November 13.


1764  –  Discovery of globular cluster Messier 10 (by Charles Messier).


1889  –  Discovery of asteroid 284 Amalia  by Auguste Charlois.


May 28 – 99 Dike

Asteroid 99 Dike was the first of many asteroids (and the occasional comet) to be discovered by Alphonse Borrelly from his Marseilles observatory. This one was spotted on May 28th 1868.  I have very little to say about it, except that it should be pronounced die-kee rather than dyke or decay.

Dike was a daughter of Zeus and Themis, and was the goddess in charge of justice and fair judgement in the mortal world (her mother had the same responsibility over the immortals).


May 27 – 44 Nysa

Asteroid 44 Nysa is head of the Nysian family of main belt asteroids.  It is a type E asteroid, a group thought to have surfaces of the orthorhombic silicate enstatite, a name I remember well from my days spent hopelessly trying to remember mineral compositions for Mr Hughes’ A-Level Geology class.

Nysa was discovered on May 27th 1857 by our old friend Hermann Goldschmidt, and named not after a person or mythical creature, but a place.  Nysa was a mythological land, linked to Africa , Arabia, or more likely India, where Dionysus was raised by the Hyades.


May 26 – EXOSAT

The European X-Ray Satellite (EXOSAT) was launched on May 26th 1983, and was operational until April 9th 1986, studying x-ray binaries, active galactic nuclei, and other x-ray sources.  Personally I think the best thing about it was its bizarre orbit (from 120,000 mile apogee to 300 mile perigee), but there were other highlights of the three years, including the discovery of quasi periodic oscillations in LMXRBs and x-ray pulsars.  I can sense that you are just dying to know what LMXRB stands for.  It’s Low Mass X Ray Binary (low mass generally means lower in mass than the Sun).


1969  –  Apollo 10 splashdown.

Recovery of the Apollo 10 capsule

Recovery of the Apollo 10 capsule


1826  –  Birth, in Chelsea, of Richard Christopher Carrington, recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.  His work included the demonstration of the existence of solar flares, and their influence on our planet. He now lends his name to the numbering system for sunspot cycles.


May 24 – Launch of MA-7

Mercury Atlas 7, combining Mercury craft 18 and Atlas launch vehicle 107-D, was launched on May 24, 1962, with the capsule bearing the slightly more memorable name of Aurora 7.  Pilot M Scott Carpenter, the fourth American in space, circled the Earth three times, photographing his home planet and studying the behaviour of liquids in weightlessness, before coming down approximately 250 miles off course.

Mercury Atlas 7 (image credit: NASA)

Mercury Atlas 7 (image credit: NASA)


Asteroid 131 Vala was discovered on May 24th, 1873, by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters, and named after a Norse prophetess. It is a K type, main belt asteroid of approximately 35 to 40 km diameter.
Vala is the anglicisation of the old Norse word völva, meaning “wand carrier”, and refers not to a specific individual, but to a class of seeress, feared and revered by society, and in the habit of carrying a wand.


May 22 – 41 Daphne

Asteroid 41 Daphne was discovered on May 22nd 1856 by Hermann Goldschmidt. It is a C-type, main belt asteroid, orbiting in 9:22 mean orbital resonance with Mars. It has a satellite, S/2008 (41) 1 which flies round it every 1.1 days.

Daphne was a nymph who attracted the eye (among other organs) of the god Apollo. She wasn’t keen on his advances, though, and pleaded for help to her father, a river god. His bizarre solution to her problem was to turn his daughter into a laurel tree.

Apollo and Daphne, by Veronese.

Apollo and Daphne, by Veronese.


Thomas Gold was born on this day in 1920. Gold was an Austrian-born astrophysicist, proponent of the steady state theory of the universe, whose family fled to Britain when the Germans invaded. The British government, compassionate and understanding as always, had him thrown into an internment camp as an enemy alien for the first two years of the war, but later relented and put him to work on radar development.


May 17 – Norman Lockyer

Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer was born on May 17th 1836 in Rugby.  He has two main claims to fame: founding the journal Nature (which I used to read occasionally until I realized I couldn’t understand a word of it) and the discovery of helium, which, because he first identified it in solar spectra, he named after the handsome Greek god of the Sun, Helios.

Norman Lockyer

Norman Lockyer


1887  –  Asteroid 266 Aline discovered by Johann Palisa.  Aline is a C-type asteroid in the main belt, and measures a chunky 108(-ish) km in diameter.  According to the Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D Schmadel, the name might be a nod to Linda (“Aline”) Weiss, one of the seven children of the director of Vienna Observatory, Edmund Weiss.


May 16 – 87 Sylvia

Asteroid 87 Sylvia was discovered on May 16th 1866 by N R Pogson, author of the Madras Catalogue of stars, at Madras Observatory.

Sylvia is a large asteroid in the Cybele group of bodies in the outer core of the main belt.  She is an x-type asteroid, with “x” in this case doing its usual job of signifying the uncertainty surrounding their composition.

Sylvia is named after Rhea Silvia, descendant of Aeneas, daughter of Numitor, and, in an unusual career move for a Vestal Virgin, mother of Romulus and Remus.

Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena, Spain.

Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena, Spain.

Sylvia has two satellites. They were given the fairly obvious names of Romulus (discovered in 2001) and Remus (2004).


1888  –  Discovery of asteroid 278 Paulina by Johann Palisa.


2011 saw the launch of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 02 (AMS-02) via shuttle Endeavour, to be mounted onboard the ISS.  AMS-02′s raison d’etre is to measure cosmic rays as part of the ongoing search for dark matter.  It seems to be working well so far, making 1,000 recordings a second (at a rough guess that probably means about 30 billion by now).


May 14 – 196 Philomela

Asteroid 196 Philomela was discovered by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters at Hamilton College, Clinton (New York) on May 14th 1879.  It is a large, bright, S-type (stony) main belt asteroid, and studies of light curve data have decided it is smooth and asymmetrically shaped.

Philomela and Procne showing Itys'head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses

Philomela and Procne showing Itys’ head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Philomela was the daughter of King Pandium I of Athens, and had a sister called Procne.  Procne’s husband, Tereus, raped Philomela, and according to Ovid, cut out her tongue.  To get her revenge Philomela wove a tapestry (she couldn’t just write it down?) telling her story, and sent it to her sister.  Procne took the news badly, killing her son by Tereus, boiling him, and serving him to her husband.

Tereus failed to see the funny side, and pursued the sisters with the aim of killing them.  But they prayed to the gods for assistance, and were transformed into birds (Procne a swallow, and Philomela a nightingale).


1973   –   Unmanned launch of Skylab, the first orbiting space station of the United States.  Although the final manned mission left the station in 1974, Skylab remained potentially operational, and the plan was to move it into a higher orbit using the space shuttle.  Unfortunately the development of the shuttle took longer than planned, so NASA were forced to allow Skylab to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.


2009   –   Launch of PLANCK by ESA and the Herschel Space Observatory (a joint mission by NASA and ESA). PLANCK was equipped with instruments to detect at infrared and microwave, while Herschel was the largest infrared telescope ever launched, with a primary mirror measuring 11 feet in diameter. Herschel’s mission ended on 29th April 2013, when the liquid helium needed to cool it’s instruments ran out. PLANCK lasted a little longer, being told to shut down on 23rd October the same year.