January 31 – Launch of Luna 9 (1966)

Luna 9, launched today in 1966, was the first spacecraft to soft land (in other words, survive landing) on the Moon.

Replica of Luna 9

Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan, a three day journey ended with the use of a “landing bag” to soften the bouncing during the 14 mph impact.

Artist’s impression of Luna 9 on the surface of the Moon

On landing, the four petals visible in the photograph opened up to increase surface stability, and Luna 9 started to take pictures and monitor radiation. Signals from the lander were picked up by the Jodrell Bank radio telescope facility in Cheshire. Opinions divided on whether this was a deliberate act by the USSR to make sure the West knew what they had achieved. Contact with the craft ceased on February 6th.

Twenty-four spacecraft managed to get the name “Luna”. Plenty more were launched, but only those that managed to get as far as the Moon could join the club. It didn’t matter if you crashed into it or sailed straight past, making the distance was enough.

January 31 – Launch of Explorer 1 (1958)

On this day in 1958  Explorer 1 was launched by the USA in response to the USSR launching Sputnik 1 the previous October.  The launch was operated by the Army Ballistic MissileAgency, the organisation for which Werhner von Braun worked after the War.   It carried a cosmic ray detector, provided by Dr James Van Allen (yes, the same one the radiation belts are named after).

Explorer 1 (possibly - they all look alike)
Explorer 1 (possibly – they all look alike)

Explorer 1 only had a brief existence, transmitting until its batteries drained in late May of 1958, and burning up in 1970 when it re-entered the atmosphere.


January 31st 1961 saw two launches,  MR-2 and Samos 2.  Samos 2 was a reconnaissance satellite with a short lifespan and even shorter piece in the history books. The Samos surveillance satellites were a US Air Force programme, able to record video and transmit back while over US airspace.

MR-2, however, made a bigger splash. It carried Ham, a chimpanzee, on a quarter of an hour trip to approximately 130 miles up.  He apparently appeared unfazed by his trip but as, presumably, nobody asked him about his experience, we only have the word of NASA scientists on this one.


Also today we have Apollo 14, the eighth manned Apollo mission, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre under the command of Alan Shepard, (the first man to smuggle golf balls to the Moon) en route for their Fra Mauro landing site. I’ll come back to Apollo 14 on Feb 5, the day they landed.


C-type main-belt asteroid 232 Russia was discovered today in 1883 by Johann Palisa, and named after the country.

A Small Piece of Russia (image credit: Me!)
A Small Piece of Russia (image credit: Me!)

 

January 30 – Launch of Ranger 6 (1964)

Spacecraft Ranger 6 was launched by NASA on January 30th 1964 from Cape Canaveral.  The plan was to transmit high resolution pictures back from the surface of the Moon.  Ranger 6 did indeed make it to the Moon, landing in the Mare Tranquillitatis on Feb 2nd, but was never heard from again (a short-circuit during separation from the launch vehicle had rendered the cameras inoperative).

Ranger 6
Ranger 6

Not wanting to feel left out, the Russians on this day in 1964 managed to  launch two spacecraft at once for the first time.  Elektron 1 and Elektron 2 were hoist skyward atop a Vostok-K rocket to study the Van Allen radiation belt and the Earth’s magnetic field.  The two were launched simultaneously to allow the inner and outer belts to be studied at the same time.   I believe all 350kg (771 lb) of  Elektron 1 is still up there.

Elektron-style satellite (possibly Elektron 1, but you can never be sure).
Elektron-style satellite (possibly Elektron 1, but you can never be sure).

 

January 29 – Discovery of Asteroid 180 Garumna (1867)

S-type main belt asteroid 180 Garumna was discovered by Henri Joseph Perrotin on January 29th 1878. Perrotin was working in Toulouse at the time, which probably affected the choice of name for his discovery (see below) a habit carried on from his first find, 138 Tolosa (Toulouse).

Garonne river in Toulouse. View from the southern bank. The green bridge is Pont Saint-Pierre. (Image: Tiia Monto)
Garonne river in Toulouse. View from the southern bank. The green bridge is Pont Saint-Pierre. (Image: Tiia Monto)

Garumna is the Latin name for the Garonne river, which rises in the Spanish Pyrenees and flows northwards through southern France before emptying into the Gironde.


Asteroid 382 Dodona was discovered on this day in 1894 by Auguste Charlois. It’s fairly big (over 58km in diameter) and classified as M-type, implying it is probably largely metallic in composition.

The ancient theater of Dodona, Epirus, Greece. (Image: Onno Zweers)
The ancient theater of Dodona, Epirus, Greece. (Image: Onno Zweers)

Dodona is in northwestern Greece, and was the site of the oracle of Dione and Zeus, second only to Delphi in prestige. Oracles were taken seriously by all strata of Greek society. King Croesus was so keen to make sure he was getting accurate information from them he sent emmisaries to all the major oracles and got them all to predict at the same time what he was doing. Delphi proved to be the most accurate, informing the king that he was cooking a lamb and tortoise stew. I’m pretty sure the average 21st century astrologer or psychic couldn’t compete with that.


1894   ⇒   Also on January 28th, we have the discovery of C-type main belt asteroid 383 Janina. And for the second time today it was spotted by Auguste Charlois.


 

January 27 – Pasiphae

Jupiter’s moon Pasiphae (known as 1908 CJ when first discovered, then Jupiter VIII) was first seen by human eyes on January 28th 1908.  The eyes in question belonged to Philibert Jacques Melotte, a British astronomer, despite the name, and the actual discovery date goes down as the 27th rather than the 28th because that was when CJ was first photographed by the Royal Greenwich Observatory.  It’s one of the retrograde satellites of Jupiter, and was eventually named after the mother of the Minotaur (a name with an “e” on the end, in the manner suggested by Jürgen Blunck to distinguish between Jupiter’s prograde and retrograde moons) after being informally known as Poseidon for a while.

There’s apparently no rush at the International Astronomical Union.  The name Pasiphae was finally proposed by the “Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature” at the same time as eight other Jovian moons, in October 1975, 67 years after discovery.  It was then accepted by the IAU General Assembly the following August.

Daedalus and Pasiphae (fresco from Pompeii)
Daedalus and Pasiphae (fresco from Pompeii)

Pasiphae is a small moon by the standards of more well-known satellites at about 20km radius, but because of the enormous quantity of Jovian moons, most of which have radii in single figures, it’s actually one of the larger.


1904  –  Asteroid 523 Ada discovered January 29th, 1904 by American astronomer Raymond S. Dugan.  He named it after Ada Helme, a schoolfriend from Montague, Mass.


January 26 – Discovery of Asteroid 159 Aemilia (1876)

Asteroid 159 Aemilia was discovered by the brothers Henry (this one was attributed to Paul) on January 26th 1876.  It’s a dark C-type asteroid of about 127 km wide, with a rotation period of approximately 25 hours.   It orbits with the Hygiea asteroids, but is rather larger than the rest, so may not be a member of the family.

According to the Dictionary of Minor Planet Names, by Lutz Schmadel (Springer Verlag), himself no mean discoverer of asteroids, it is probably named after a famous Roman road, the Via Aemilia.  I can’t argue with that, but I will mention that there are other possibilities.  The road was named after a Roman consul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a member of an extremely old and well-connected Roman family, any one of whom might have inspired the name.  Then again, Aemilia is thought by some to have been the mother of Romulus.  Or perhaps the Henry’s were thinking of the Vestal virgin found guilty of breaking her vows of chastity?

The lack of a definite ID on the name results in a lack of photography, so here is a snap of Paul and Prosper Henry, looking jovial and lighthearted.

The Brothers Henry
The Brothers Henry

 

 

January 25 – Launch of IRAS (1983)

IRAS, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite was the first space-based observatory to perform a whole sky (almost: it covered 96%)  infrared survey.  It was launched on January 25th 1983 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, and was a joint US/UK/Netherlands project.  It identified over 350,000 new infrared sources, expanding the catalog by about 70%.

IRAS (image credit: NASA/JPL)
IRAS (image credit: NASA/JPL)

You can get an idea of just how big the survey was in the following image, looking across the plane of the Milky way, and showing a point for each infrared source.  You also get to see the fairly obvious bits it missed out.

IRAS Point Source Map (image credit: Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, Caltech/JPL. IPAC is NASA's Infrared Astrophysics Data Center).
IRAS Point Source Map (image credit: Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, Caltech/JPL. IPAC is NASA’s Infrared Astrophysics Data Center).

The blue points in the image are stars, yellowy-green patches are galaxies, and red is infrared cirrus, cloud-like structures of cool (about 25 Kelvin) galactic dust, identified for the first time by IRAS.

Somewhat surprisingly for an observatory dedicated to the discovery of fixed point sources, IRAS also gets a mention as a discoverer of three asteroids and six comets.  The asteroids are a Mercury-crossing Apollo called 3200 Phaethon, parent of the Geminid meteors; the main belt asteroid 3728 IRAS, and the unnamed (10714) 1983 QG, discovered August 31st 1983.


Also today, in 1967, we have the launch of Cosmos 139 by the USSR.


 

January 24 – Voyager 2 reaches Uranus (1986)

1986: Voyager 2 makes its closest approach to Uranus.  The seventh planet from the Sun was reached after a journey lasting more than eight years.  It was a great success, discovering ten new moons, and two new rings.

Three new Uranian moons discovered by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
Three new Uranian moons discovered by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

The moons shown in the above photograph are Portia, (1986/U1), Cressida (1986/U3), and Rosalind (1986/U4).

The rings of Uranus, viewed from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
The rings of Uranus, viewed from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

It isn’t clear whether the rings of Uranus were known prior to 1977 when they were discovered by Elliott, Dunham & Mink. William Herschel had reported seeing them almost 200 years previously, but he might have been making an educated guess, as they would have been very hard to see with the instruments available at the time.

Parting shot of Uranus by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
Parting shot of Uranus by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

As far as I know there are no definite plans to re-visit Uranus in the near future.  Several missions have been suggested, but it takes a long time to get there, making it expensive, and these days you need to prove that it would be worth it.


1882 – Birth of Harold Babcock in Edgerton, Wisconsin.


 

January 21 – Discovery of Asteroid 356 Liguria (1893)

Auguste Charlois strikes again! On January 21st, 1893, one day after 355 Gabriella (see yesterday’s blog) he discovered 356 Liguria, another large main belt asteroid (about 155 km in diameter).

Genoa (picture credit: me!)
Genoa (picture credit: me!)

The name of today’s asteroid refers to the coastal region of Italy of which Genoa is the capital. I hold Genoa in particularly high esteem as the home of the best ice cream I ever tasted.


1960  –  Spacecraft LJ-1B launched carrying the Rhesus monkey “Miss Sam” to a height of eight miles. Miss Sam was in a more fortunate position than many early “astronauts”, in that her flight was to test emergency abort and recovery procedures, so getting her back alive was top priority.