December 07 – Discovery of Asteroid 423 Diotima (1898)

Asteroid 423 Diotima was discovered from Nice by Auguste Charlois on December 7th, 1898. It’s in the main belt, is a C-type, is fairly large (approximately 170 by 140 km) and rotates once about its axis every 4.8-ish hours.

Diotima has a semi-major axis of a little over 3 AU.  Semi-major axis sounds worse than it is. It’s just the longest radius of of an elliptical orbit.

Diotima of Mantinea
Diotima of Mantinea

Diotima was named, by the Heidelberg Astronomisches Rechen-Institut, or Astronomical Calculation Unit, after one of Socrates’ teachers, Diotima of Mantinea, a woman whose existence remains uncertain; the jury is still out on whether or not she was simply a creation of Plato. It is from the teachings of Diotima that we get the concept of platonic love. I can’t help thinking there’s a clue to her existence (or lack of it) in that name. Surely it would have been diotimic love?

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).

December 04 – Launch of Gemini VII (1965)

We have slightly odd numbering here. Gemini 7 (VII) was launched on December 4th, 1965, after Gemini 5, but before Gemini 6A. Gemini 6 was obviously originally planned to go between 5 and 7, but had to be cancelled and rescheduled with an “A”.

The crew of gemini VII (Lovell, left, and Borman)
The crew of Gemini VII (Lovell, left, and Borman)

The plan for Gemini 7 was to observe the effects of prolonged spaceflight on astronauts. The two-man crew, Frank Borman and James Lovell, circled the globe 206 times during their two week confinement. After 11 days they were joined briefly by Walter Schirra aboard Gemini 6A, and practiced rendezvousing (at closest approach during their extra-atmospheric ballet they were just one foot apart).

Gemini, of course, is the constellation that lies between Cancer and Taurus in the sky (and therefore in the zodiac) and is historically associated with the twin brothers Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux if you prefer the later Roman name). I prefer Polydeuces myself, because the translation is “much sweet wine”, which you just don’t get with “Pollux”. Castor, as any rodentologist will tell you, is Greek for “beaver”.

The Diskouri, in the Museum of Modern Art (image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)
The Diskouri, in the Museum of Modern Art (image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

The twins now immortalized in the heavens were collectively known to the Greeks as the Diskouri, or “sons of Zeus” (the noun Gemini is from Roman mythology). They also had twin half-sisters, even more famous than themselves: Helen (of Troy) and Clytemnestra.

December 02 – Launch of SOHO (1995)

Built in Europe, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was launched on December 2nd, 1995 and, despite being planned as a two year mission, it is still going, with the latest predicted end date being in 2020. It is a joint project between ESA and NASA, built by Matra Marco I Aerospace, and designed to provide data to help predict solar weather, and answer questions about the solar interior, solar wind, and why the corona is so hellishly hot. The mission has been a great success, providing significant insights into such areas as the structure of sunspots, the flow of gases inside the Sun, and the dynamics of the solar wind.

Prominence spotted by SOHO (image: ESA / NASA)
Prominence spotted by SOHO (image: ESA / NASA)

In addition to all this, SOHO has still found time to become history’s greatest ever discoverer of comets, with the total ticking over to an astonishing 3000 on September 13th 2015. Comet number 3000 was spotted by Thai astronomer Worachate Boonplod, part of an amateur army of spotters who betwen them have been responsible for the majority of SOHO discoveries.


The Broad Band X-ray Telescope (BBXRT) was launched today (1990) on board shuttle Columbia flight STS-35. It formed part of the partly-successful “ASTRO-1” payload of four instruments.

In-flight view of BBXRT (image: NASA)
In-flight view of BBXRT (image: NASA)

The mission was somewhat shorter than the previously-mentioned SOHO, as the telescope was attached to the shuttle, and had to go wherever it went (back to Earth).

December 01 – Discovery of Asteroid 157 Dejanira (1875)

At 19km wide, and with an absolute magnitude of around +11 and a rotation period of 15.82 hours, 157 Dejanira is a fairly ordinary main belt asteroid discovered by Alphonse Borelly on December 1st 1875. It has since started to punch above its weight by becoming the head of a family of similarly located asteroids.

Dejanira is named for the mythological Greek princess Deianira, daughter of the king of Calydon. Supposedly a great beauty, she caught the eye of both the hero Herakles and the deity Achelous, god of the river Acheloos. Herakles won, of course, and took Deianira as his wife. This turned out to be one of his less inspired decisions, as is explained in The Women of Trachis by Sophocles. Early in their relationship, Herakles had saved Deianira from being carried off by a centaur called Nessus, by killing him with an arrow. Somehow the dying Nessus persuaded Deianira that his blood was a love potion. Deianira kept some, and when she later found out that Herakles was about to embark on an amorous adventure with a captive princess, she dyed a robe with it and sent it to her husband as a gift, forgetting that his own arrows were dipped in the blood of a hydra, and had therefore made Nessus’ blood a powerful poison.

Black Figure Hydria (water carrier) showing Heracles, Deianira and Nessus (Louvre, Paris).
Black Figure Hydria (water carrier) showing Heracles, Deianira and Nessus (Louvre, Paris).

I’d like to say here that “hilarity ensues and they all lived happily ever after”, but obviously it didn’t, and they don’t. Read The Women of Trachis to depress yourself further.

This story has led astrologers to associate the presence of Dejanira in your chart with abuse, submission, and generally being a victim.


1894 ~ Discovery of main belt asteroid 396 Aeolia (named after an area of Asia Minor) by Auguste Charlois.


1989 ~ I think I need to look up the Russian for International Astrophysical Observatory , because the acronym is GRANAT, and I can’t get past the “G”. Anyhoo, it was launched on December 1st 1989 by the Soviet Union, in collaboration with Bulgaria, France and Denmark. Able to observe at wavelengths From X- to gamma ray, Granat was operational for nine years, and discovered twenty new X-ray sources. Granat was similar in design to the older Astron observatory, which had itself been based around the Venera design.

Granat, perched on a Proton launch vehicle, shortly before liftoff. (Image: NASA)
Granat, perched on a Proton launch vehicle, shortly before liftoff. (Image: NASA)

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

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?