November 29 – Launch of Mercury-Atlas 5 (1961)

Mercury-Atlas 5 is classed as an unmanned flight, launched from Cape Canaveral on November 29th, 1961. And yes, I suppose that it was technically unmanned, because there were no men on board. But there was an astronaut, and that astronaut was male.

ENOS in his launch position. (Image: NASA)
ENOS in his launch position. (Image: NASA)

Enos, pictured above, was the second chimpanzee to fly into space, and the first to orbit the Earth. The idea behind Enos’ trip was to stage a flight that would be as close as possible to the planned MA-6 launch, but without the less-expendable John Glenn.

Enos survived his odyssey, but it was touch and go. A problem with the environmental controls made it rather warmer than planned in the capsule, and fuel consumption concerns led to the intended three orbits being curtailed at two.

The World’s most traveled chimp lived for just under a year following his triumphant return to Earth, and died of dysentery on November 4th, 1962. It is not known what became of his remains. And if you still think I’m being silly, sentimental and anthropomorphic by suggesting that MA-5 should be called a manned trip, the name Enos (a biblical name, one of the grandchildren of Adam and Eve) means “man”.

November 28 – Discovery of KBO 20000 Varuna (2000)

We hurtle way beyond the asteroid belt today, for a change, to celebrate the discovery of TNO (or KBO) 20000 Varuna, first spotted for what it is on November 28th 2000 by Robert S Macmillan, despite appearing on photographic plates dating back to the 1950s.

Varuna is a fairly large classical Kuiper belt object (KBO). Estimates of its size varied widely at the time of discovery from 600 to 1000km. More recent calculations seem to be bringing it down to the lower end of that range, but it still ranks highly in the KBO pecking order.

Varuna has a very rapid rotation (one full turn every 6.34 hours) and a double-peaked light curve. it is thought to be an elongated spheroid, about half as wide again across the equator as from pole to pole.

A recent report in Astrophysical Journal Letters (883 (1)) suggests the possibility of a close-in satellite orbiting Varuna, but there’s nothing conclusive, so we will have to wait and see.

Varuna pacifying Sri Rama.
Varuna pacifying Sri Rama.

The Hindu deity Varuna, after whom this particular oblate spheroid is named, has similar qualities to the Roman god Neptune, making it a good choice for what at the time was the largest known trans-Neptunian object.

Asteroid 235 Carolina was also discovered today, in 1883. It is one of Johann Palisa‘s collection of 122 asteroids, and came while he was going through (by his standards) a dry patch in his rock hunting career. Having discovered nine in 1882, he “only” managed two in 1883, before hitting his stride again in 1884 with six. Part of the reason for this relative scarcity was probably that Palisa spent a good portion of the year 1883 travelling to watch a total solar eclipse. The spot chosen for the expedition was near to Tahiti, in the chain of coral atolls known as the Line Islands. More specifically . . . .

Caroline Island, Kiribati (image credit: NASA)
Caroline Island, Kiribati (image credit: NASA)

November 27 – Discovery of Asteroid 82 Alkmene (1864)

Asteroid 82 Alkmene was discovered by the prolific German asteroid hunter Robert Luther on November 27th 1864. It’s a medium-sized S-type main belt asteroid, orbiting the Sun every four and a half years.

The Labour of Alcmena (Virgil Solis)
The Labour of Alcmena (Virgil Solis)

Alkmene was named, at Luther’s request, by Karl von Littrow (director of the Vienna Observatory), Edmund Weiss (who would also become director of the Vienna Observatory, in 1878) and Theodor von Oppolzer (a professor at Vienna University), after the mother of Herakles. Zeus was the father, but didn’t go to any of the great lengths he normally employed in order to have his way with her. He simply disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, which was well below his normal level of inventiveness. But then again he’d already added a certain amount of deviation by going after her in the first place, as she was his great-granddaughter.

Today’s picture is a woodcut from a collection of 183 by the German artist Virgil Solis for a 1581 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

2011 Discovery of the long period comet 2011 W3 Lovejoy by Terry Lovejoy, an australian amateur astronomer, responsible for the discovery of a further 4 comets..

November 25 – Discovery of the “Bow Tie Nebula” (NGC40)

The planetary nebula NGC 40, also known as the Bow Tie Nebula, was discovered by William Herschell on November 25, 1788, using his 18.7 inch reflector. Formed about 4,500 years ago, it is located some 3,000 to 3,500 light years away in the constellation Cepheus (the king, husband of nearby queen Cassiopeia). The nebula measures about 1 light year across.

Location of NGC40 (Caldwell 2). Image credit:
Location of NGC40 (Caldwell 2). Image credit:

NGC 40 is also designated C2 (Caldwell 2), one of a list of 109 deep sky objects compiled by the famed amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore. The letter “C” was chosen by necessity, Charles Messier having already selfishly claimed Mr Moore’s more obvious choice, “M”.

The Bow Tie Nebula (NGC 40) imaged by CHANDRA (image credit: NASA)
The Bow Tie Nebula (NGC 40) imaged by CHANDRA (image credit: NASA)

A planetary nebula is the shell formed around a dying star that has thrown off its outer layers at the red giant stage of its evolution. In the image above, from the CHANDRA X-Ray Observatory, the blue areas are gases heated to several million degrees Celsius, with the red areas being at a relatively cool 10,000 degrees. Eventually, when the nebula has faded, all that will be left will be a small, dense white dwarf, possibly no bigger than Earth.

I apologise for choosing an image bearing no resemblance to a bow tie, but then Cepheus bears even less to a king. And if you have ever seen my attempts to tie a bow, you might actually see the similarity.

November 25 – Discovery of Asteroid 128 Nemesis (1872)

Asteroid 128 Nemesis was discovered on November 25th 1872 by J C Watson. It’s a C-type asteroid, estimated to be about 188km in diameter, and is one of the slower rotators, with a day of 39 hours. 128 Nemesis is the largest member of the Nemesis (or nemesian) family of asteroids, of which at least 129 have been identified by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Nemesis (Louvre, Paris)
Nemesis (Louvre, Paris)

Nemesis, as the name might have already suggested to you, was the Greek goddess of retribution. She is generally thought to have been the mother of Helen of Troy and her twin sister Clytemnestra, as well as the more astronomically famous twins Castor and Pollydeuces (a.k.a. Pollux). Obviously, having two sets of twins, while unusual, was nowhere near bizarre enough for the Greeks, so the story goes that Nemesis, attempting to avoid Zeus (as usual) took the form of a goose. Zeus then turned into a swan, resulting of course in an egg from which her children are born.

What were those guys on?

November 22 – Asteroid 156 Xanthippe

Asteroid 156 Xanthippe was discovered by Johann Palisa on November 22nd 1875. It has been classified as a C-type, with a diameter of about 116km and a rotation period of 22.5 hours.

Xanthippe, whose name means “yellow horse”, was the wife of Socrates, and is a woman about whom we know little from historical sources. Even Plato, a man with an interest in Socrates bordering on the obsessive, mentions her only briefly in his Phaedo. In Xenophon’s writings she is shown to be a little on the argumentative side, and this view of her has been embroidered upon, probably unfairly, down the years, until by Shakespeare’s time her name had become synonymous with an aggressive, bad-tempered woman.

Socrates and Xanthippe
Socrates and Xanthippe

The engraving above, by the Dutch artist Otto van Veen, is of Xanthippe emptying a chamber pot over the head of Socrates (supposedly the outcome of one of their many arguments).

1944 Death of Arthur Eddington, aged 61, the man who gave us the Eddington limit, the maximum luminosity achievable by a star.

1969The Skynet 1A satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. This was the first of a series of British satellites providing a means of communication for the armed forces. Being British, of course, it broke after about a year (probably just after the warranty expired) but is still in orbit, and is likely to remain there, according to the UK Space Agency’s “UK Registry of Outer Space Objects” for upwards of a million years.

November 20 – Launch of Swift (2004)

The Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer was launched on November 20th 2004 by NASA as part of their medium-sized “MIDEX” program.  Now the first thing you’re probably thinking is “why isn’t the name Swift in capital letters?”  The answer is that Swift is not an acronym.  It doesn’t mean anything (except that you’re supposed to think of a small, fast bird).

Swift (image: NASA)
Swift (image: NASA)

If you look at some of the early press releases about Swift, NASA were hopeful that it would last for the duration of its two year mission, and survey over 200 gamma ray bursts (GRBs).  Now, 11 years later, and with over 1000 GRBs under its belt, Swift has exceeded all expectations and is still going strong.

Gamma rays are extremely high frequency emissions formed by the decay of atomic nuclei, and a burst of gamma rays is exactly what it sounds like: in a Universe where most things happen over millions of years, GRBs are astoundingly quick.  Slow ones can take a couple of hours; but the quickest have been and gone in a few milliseconds.  Also, there are only a few every million years in an average galaxy, which you might think would make them hard to spot, but fortunately they are so unbelievably powerful that the energy has no problem travelling the millions or billions of light years between the source and the detectors on board Swift.

One of Swift's collection: GRB 090429B, 13 billion light years away (image: NASA)
One of Swift’s collection: GRB 090429B, 13 billion light years away (image: NASA)

Swift has observed some pretty unusual events over its lifetime, including the most distant GRB ever seen, an x-ray source right in the centre of the galaxy, and a two-week long blast of stellar flares from a red dwarf reckoned to be 12 times hotter than the centre of the Sun.


November 19 – Launch of Shuttle Mission STS-80 (1996)

1996 – Launch of space shuttle Columbia on mission STS-80 (19 days late). At 17 days, 15 hours and 53 minutes this became the longest shuttle mission, and comprised commander Kenneth D Cockrell, pilot Kent V Rominger, and mission specialists F Story Musgrave, Thomas D Jones, and Tamara E Jernigan. Musgrave was on his sixth flight, a record at the time, and became the only person to fly all five shuttles.

Crew of STS-80 (L-R: )
Crew of STS-80 (L-R: Rominger, Jernigan, Musgrave, Jones, Cockrell)

The 19 day tardiness mentioned above was caused by a number of factors. Firstly STS-79 had been held up, Then a hurricane warning delayed work on the boosters. An issue with nozzles dropped it from Nov 4th to 8th, and a rescheduled commercial launch didn’t help matters. All this gave the weather time to regroup, causing one final delay. We are still a long way from being able to repel a Borg attack.

We have a cubewano today! It is Kuiper-belt object 19521 Chaos, which was discovered by the Deep Ecliptic Survey on November 19th, 1998. Chaos is about 600 km in diameter, and may well be a dwarf planet, not much smaller than Ixion and Varuna. It orbits between a perihelion of about 40.9 AU and an aphelion of just under 50.6 AU, and spends more than 300 Earth years completing a single orbit of the Sun (or 1 Chaotic year, obviously).

November 18 – Birth of Alan Shepard (1923)

Rear Admiral Alan B Shepard was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18th, 1923. He served with the US Navy during World War II, and became a test pilot before being selected as one of the “Mercury Seven”, NASA’s original group of astronauts, who’s members went on to fly in all four US manned space programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle). Shepard was the only one of the seven to walk on the Moon (Apollo 14), and also holds the records for being the oldest person to do so, and for the longest stay on the lunar surface (33 hours).

Alan "Al" Shepard (image credit: NASA)
Alan Shepard (image credit: NASA)

Al Shepard only went into space twice. His first journey was an extremely brief quarter of an hour, aboard the Mercury craft Freedom 7, on May 5th, 1967, with his second being the substantially longer Apollo 14 mentioned previously (January 31st to February 9th, 1971).  On his first trip he became the first American in space, but not quite the first human, having been beaten by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin by just over three weeks.

Al Shepard died on July 21st, 1998.

The launch of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was on this day in 1989 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. COBE was also known as Explorer 66, part of the United States’ apparently never-ending Explorer series of satellites that has been running since 1958.

2013  –  Launch of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission.  After a journey of 442 million miles, completed in just under ten months, MAVEN was inserted into orbit around Mars on September 21st 2014.  The goal of the mission was to find out how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost.


November 17 – Discovery of Asteroid 107 Camilla (1868)

Today’s asteroid, 107 Camilla, was discovered on November 17th 1868 by Norman Robert Pogson.  It is just about within the main belt, being a member of the Cybele Group, a collection of rocks lying on the outer edge of the belt, beyond the 2:1 Kirkwood Gap, and thought to be the result of the break up of a much larger object sometime long ago.  Camilla herself is one of the larger asteroids, with a diameter of 209km putting her right up among the big guns of the asteroid belt.

Camilla is so-called after a queen of the same name from Roman mythology, suckled by a mare (in accordance with the obligatory bizarre upbringings of many mythological characters), and later to become an ally of the Rutuli, opponents of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid.  She is one of the many historical and mythological characters encountered by Dante Alighieri in “Limbo”, the first circle of Hell, in his Inferno.

King Mètabo feeds his daughter Camilla with the milk of a mare (from a fresco by Niccolò dell’Abate, Bologna).

Camilla (we’re back with the asteroid now) has two small satellite.  The first to be discovered is of about 6 miles across (10 to 11 km), spotted in 2001 by astronomers at Towson University in Maryland, using images from the Hubble Space Telescope.  At the time of writing this satellite is designated S/2001 (107) 1 but has no official name.  I’m voting for Charles.

Camilla (and Charles)
Camilla (and Charles?)

The second satellite, S/2016 (107) 1, is even smaller, probably just 3.5km across.  It was discovered by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, in 2016.