January 13 – Discovery of asteroid 171 Ophelia (1877)

January 13th, 1877 marks the dicovery of asteroid 171 Ophelia, a member of the carbonaceous (C-type) Themis family, by Alphonse Borrelly. It was one of three he discovered that year, and was named after the daughter of Polonius in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

The Themistians are one of the larger asteroid families, with close to 5000 members (still well short of the largest families though; the biggest two are the Vestians, numbering 15,000+, and the Nysians, with over 19,000 members). They orbit in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt, and are a collisional family, thought to have formed from the violent coming together of two bodies at some time in the distant past.

Ophelia (1894) by Waterhouse
Ophelia (1894) by Waterhouse

The accompanying illustration is by J W Waterhouse, and shows Shakespeare’s tragic heroine just before her death (she drowns, falling from a tree when a bough breaks).

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

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