December 06 – Launch of Pioneer 3

Launched from Cape Canaveral on December 6th 1958, Pioneer 3 was supposed to be a lunar flyby. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, owing to a problem with its booster rocket, but the craft did manage to reach a distance from Earth of about 63,000 miles, and used its Geiger-Müller tubes to gather useful information about the Van Allen radiation belt.

Pioneer 3 (image: NASA / JPL)
Pioneer 3 (image: NASA / JPL)

Pioneer 3 ended its one day flight by burning up over Africa.

It isn’t easy to get a sense of scale on some of these artist’s impressions, such as the one above, with Pioneer 3 optimistically shown flying over the lunar surface, so here’s a NASA photo of the probe being prepared:


1888 – Birth of comedian and astronomer Will Hay in Stockton-on-Tees, North East England. In 1933 he discovered a Great White Spot on Saturn in August 1933 (note: it’s “a” not “the” Great White Spot, as there have been several observed over the past century). At his home in Norbury, South London, Hay built his own observatory to house his 1895-vintage 12.5 inch Newtonian reflector and the 6-inch refractor he used to discover the white spot.


1893 – Discovery of asteroid 378 Holmia by Auguste Charlois (the name is the Latin for Stockholm).


1998 – Launch of the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS). One of NASA’s SMEX (Small Explorer) missions, SWAS was intended to have an operational life of two years, but managed to stretch to six, studying the cores of interstellar clouds to help our understanding of what they are composed of, and how they cool and collapse to form stars.


Finally, we can’t let the day go by without saying happy birthday to the late, great Johann Palisa, born in 1868 in Troppau (now in the Czech Republic). Over the course of about 50 years he discovered 122 asteroids, and is mentioned a helluva lot in this blog. Palisa persisted in making all his asteroid discoveries visually, even though Max Wolf was able to streak past his total with ease by using photography.

An Apollo photo of the lunar crater “Palisa” (image: NASA).

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