May 31 – Launch of Shuttle Mission STS-124

2008: Space shuttle Discovery mission STS-124 was launched on May 31st to the International Space Station.  The crew of seven took with them a substantial part of the Japanese Experiment Module (the biggest single ISS module), a Buzz Lightyear figure, and spare parts for a malfunctioning toilet.  Spaceflight isn’t all glamour.

The mission, which lasted just under two weeks, blasted off from the John F Kennedy Space Centre at just after nine o’clock in the evening, docking with the ISS on June 2nd, and staying for nine days.

(Image credit: NASA)

The crew of STS-124 comprised mission commander Mark Edward Kelly, the only astronaut whose brother has also been into space, pilot Kenneth “Hock” Ham, who started flying on the advice of a schools careers counsellor, and  mission specialists Karen Nyberg, who is married to the pilot of STS-135, Ronald J Garan Jr., who took with him religious relics on behalf of a Carmelite order in Texas, Michael E Fossum, who later commanded ISS Expedition 29, Akihiko Hoshide, the third Japanese to walk in space, Gregory Chamitoff, apparently one of the very few people to have voted from space, and Garret E Reisman, now a consultant at SpaceX.

May 30 – Discovery of Saturn’s Moon, Anthe (2007)

2007 – Saturn’s tiny (1.8km wide) moon Anthe was first spotted in Cassini images taken on May 30th, 2007, although it is now known to have been in images taken as far back as 2004.

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.

The following photograph is the best I could find on the internet.  It bears a striking resemblance to my best efforts at capturing Venus for posterity, but I promise you it isn’t.

Anthe (image credit: NASA)

Dust from Anthe is thought to be responsible for the creation of the Anthe Ring Arc, a faint ring arc of Saturn discovered in 2007, between the Methone Ring Arc and the Pallene Ring.



May 18 – Launch of Apollo 10 (1969)

Apollo 10 was the fourth of the crewed flights in the NASA Apollo program, launched this day in 1969.

As usual there was a three man crew: Tom Stafford and John Young got to try out the lunar module, while Eugene Cernan stayed in the command module.

(Image credit: NASA)

Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the big one: landing men on the Moon.  As such, it was a great success.  Stafford and Young in the lunar  module were successfully separated, and got to within 9 miles (~16 km) of the surface. The “descent stage” of the lunar module was then jettisoned,  just as it would if they had actually landed (I’m not sure if anyone knows whether it’s still in orbit?) and the crew used the “ascent stage” to get back to Cernan.

The three then jettisoned the ascent stage and successfully made it back to the Pacific Ocean (setting a new space speed record for a crewed vehicle along the way), where they were met by the USS Princeton.

There are those who say that the ascent stage of “Snoopy” (the nickname given to the lunar module) is still up there going round the Sun.  A British search has decided that they are 98% certain that the Earth-crossing asteroid 2018 AV2 is in fact the only crewed space vehicle to still be in orbit without its crew.




May 07 – Launch of STS-49 (Space Shuttle Endeavour) 1992

Today marks the launch the shuttle Endeavour in 1992 on mission STS-49 to retrieve and relaunch the intelsat 603 satellite.

This was the maiden voyage of Endeavour, lasting 9 days.  The crew (left to right in the photo below) were Kathryn C Thornton, Bruce E Melnick, Pierre J Thuot, Daniel C Brandenstein (mission commander), Kevin P Chilton (pilot), Richard J Hieb and Thomas D Akers.

Crew of Endeavour mission STS-49 (image credit: NASA)
Crew of Endeavour mission STS-49 (image credit: NASA)

The mission was a success, and included the first ever 3-astronaut EVA (spacewalk).  Four EVA’s were carried out in total (another first), but only one of them involved three crew members. The need for so many EVA’s was the result of the first two attempts to catch the Intelsat not going according to plan.  That was also the reasoning behind sending three of them outside for the third EVA.  It’s understandable when you see the size of the fish they were trying to reel in (below):

Catch of the day (Image credit: NASA)

May 06 – Daphnis

Today in 2005, Saturn’s moon Daphnis was discovered by the Cassini team.

Daphnis (image credit: NASA)
Daphnis (image credit: NASA)

Don’t be fooled by the large object at the bottom of the photograph: that’s Epimetheus, a moon about twelve times wider than Daphnis.  The birthday boy himself is a tiny, barely discernible dot towards the centre of the frame.  You might be surprised by the use of the word “boy” there, assuming Daphnis might be named after a Daphne.  But it wasn’t.  Daphnis was a shepherd (this is a shepherd moon), a very good friend of Pan, and the inventor of pastoral poetry.

Apollo and Daphnis (Perugino).
Apollo and Daphnis (Perugino).

The moon Daphnis, being ridiculously small, wasn’t an easy target to photograph. Fortunately, though, its position in the Keeler Gap within Saturn’s A ring gave it away by causing ripples within the ring. In order to stay within the Keeler Gap, Daphnis has to follow a near-perfect circular orbit. The difference between Daphnis’ perikrone and apokrone (closest approach to and furthest distance from Saturn) is only about 9 km (under 6 miles).

 1896  –  Asteroid 417 Suevia discovered by Max Wolf. Suevia is a K-type/S-type main belt asteroid of approximately 41 km (25.4 miles) diameter. it sweeps serenely round the Sun in an orbit ranging from 363 to 474 billion miles.

May 05 – 70 Panopaea

Asteroid 70 Panopaea was the last to be discovered by our old friend Hermann Goldschmidt at his Paris Observatory on May 5th 1861.  It is a large, dark C-type main belt asteroid about 75 miles in diameter.

Panopaea was a water nymph. She was one of the 50 daughters of Nereus and Doris known as the Nereids (well, I say 50, but if you start counting them up in Homer and Hesiod you end up with about 90). They are particularly associated with the Aegean Sea.

Finding a picture of Panopaea is proving difficult, so here is her father, Nereus.

Herakles and Nereus
Herakles and Nereus

Today’s photograph shows a detail from a Greek black-figure lekythos (oil storage jar) in the Louvre, Paris, decorated by the so-called Istanbul Painter, although this jar was found in Boeotia, southern Greece.  Herakles (Hercules if you prefer) is shown holding onto Nereus in an attempt to extract from him the location of the Apples of the Hesperides.

1853  –  Asteroid 26 Proserpina discovered by Robert Luther, and named after a Roman goddess associated with fertility and agriculture. Proserpina is about 90 km (56.5) km across (possibly a little more) and is an S-type asteroid. It’s a fairly cold place, in common with the rest of the main belt, with a surface temperature of 166 Kelvin (minus 157° Celsius).

May 04 – Launch of “Magellan” on Shuttle Mission STS-30

Happy Star Wars Day.

1886  – on May 4th 1866, asteroid 258 Tyche was discovered by Robert Luther. It is a 650m wide “S” type main belt asteroid, and is possibly a member of the Eunomia family. It was named after the Greek goddess whose Roman equivalent was Fortuna. Her main responsibility was to decide how prosperous a city should be.

1896  –  Asteroid 416 Vaticana was discovered on May 4th, 1896, by Auguste Charlois. It is an S-type main belt asteroid, about 85 km across, and was named after the Vatican Hill (Mons Vaticanvs) in Rome.

1989 – Launch of shuttle mission STS-30 carrying the Magellan probe, aka the Venus Radar Mapper, to be sent on its way to Venus. This was the first ever launch of a spacecraft from a shuttle. Magenta arrived at Venus on August 8th, 1990, and used a high-gain parabolic antenna to allow it to map the Surface through the opaque Venusian atmosphere. The probe burned up in this atmosphere on October 13th, 1994. Being mostly composed of carbon dioxide (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%), both of which are colourless, you might think that seeing the surface from orbit would be a doddle, but it is the presence of clouds of sulphuric acid, blowing around the planet at over 200 mph (about 300 km/h) that pose the problem.


The photograph shows the Venusian volcano Sapas Mons, a monster by Earth standards at over 240 miles wide and nearly a mile high.


May 03 – Discovery of Messier 3 (1764)

Messier 3, a globular cluster in the constellation Canes Venatici (the hunting dogs) was discovered by Charles Messier on May 3rd, 1764, but was not actually resolved into a collection of stars for another 20 years (by William Herschel).

Messier 3. Image credit: Hewholooks (Hunter Wilson).
Messier 3. Image credit: Hewholooks (Hunter Wilson).

As one of the brightest clusters (apparent magnitude 6.2) it is a popular target for amateur observers. Messier 3 contains about 500,000 stars, and is approximately 33,900 light years from Earth. Over 270 of those stars are variables, a much higher number than the average cluster; and of those, 133 are RR Lyrae variables: old, small-mass stars (about half the size of the Sun) which can be used to measure astronomical distances using the inverse square law.

1888  –  Main belt asteroid 277 Elvira was discovered by Auguste Charlois on May 3rd, 1888. It is approximately 27 km in diameter (not that I’m suggesting we are talking about a perfect sphere here) and is a member of the Koronis family. The origin of the name Elvira is not certain, but might have been inspired by a character in the Méditations poétiques of Alphonse de Lamartime, written in 1820.
The Koronis family comprises at least 300 members, mostly under 20 km wide, all following each other around in a similar orbit, and thought to exist as a result of some massive collision over two billion years ago.