February 20 – Launch of Mercury-Atlas 6 (1962)

Mercury-Atlas 6 (mission name Friendship 7) was launched from Cape Canaveral at 9:47am EST this day in 1962 after several delays caused by bad weather and leaky fuel tanks.

John Glenn (image credit: NASA)
John Glenn (image credit: NASA)

The photograph shows astronaut John Herschel Glenn Jr practicing how to get into the Mercury spacecraft.  If it was me I’d be too busy practicing how to get out to pose for this one.

Spaceflights didn’t tend to last long in those days, so today is also the anniversary of the end of this particular mission.  Glenn was in flight for less than 5 hours (or should that be fewer than?), but in that time he managed to clock up over 65,000 miles.

During his 17,000 mph flight Glenn was forced to abandon the automatic control system following a fault, and was confronted by an erroneous error message suggesting that part of the heatshield was loose.  After which, he was expected to land his tin can in the middle of the Atlantic.  Whatever they paid him, it wasn’t enough.

1983  –  TENMA x-ray telescope launched.

This was a Japanese telescope, and the name “Tenma” is Japanese for Pegasus.  It had a short life, re-entering the atmosphere on January 19, 1989.  TENMA carried a Gas Scintillation Proportional Counter.  “What’s that?” I don’t hear you cry.  Well, it’s a chamber filled with an unreactive gas that can be ionized by x-rays.  Electrons of the gas then emit UV photons whose energy can be measured and converted into a measure of the energy of the x-rays.

1993  –  ASCA x-ray telescope launched.

ASCA  =  Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics.  ASCA was another Japanese x-ray telescope, their fourth.  It was the first mission to use CCDs for x-ray astronomy.

Our last launch of the day isn’t Japanese.  As you might expect from the name, ODIN has a Scandinavian origin (Swedish in this case).  Launched from Svobodny in eastern Russia on this day in 2001, Odin’s raison d’être is to study ozone depletion and  search for water and oxygen in interstellar space.  To enable it to do this it carries a 1.1 metre telescope and a spectrograph called OSIRIS (Optical Spectrograph and Infrared Imaging System).  As far as I know it’s still in use (but the Swedish National Space Board website needs updating).

Also today, asteroid 160 Una, a C-type in the main belt, was discovered by C H F Peters in 1876.  The name comes from The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer.


And now it is empassioned so deepe,
For fairest Vnaes sake, of whom I sing,
That my fraile eyes these lines with teares do steepe,
To thinke how she through guilefull handeling,
Though true as touch, though daughter of a king,
Though faire as euer liuing wight was faire,
Though nor in word nor deede ill meriting,
Is from her knight diuorced in despaire
And her due loues deriu’d to that vile witches share.

“The Faerie Queene”,  Edmund Spencer,  1596.

And finally, asteroid 288 Glauke was discovered by Robert Luther, 1890.


February 17 – Voyager 1 breaks Distance Record

On February 17, 1998, Voyager 1 became the most distant man made object when it passed the previous record holder, Pioneer 10.

Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)
Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

Voyager 1 reminds me just how far we still have to go in space exploration. When Brooke Bond started putting their Race Into Space cards in packs of PG Tips tea in the early 1970’s I was confident that we’d have colonies living on the Moon by now and be on our way to Mars, if not already there. I thought that unmanned probes would be hurtling to the nearest stars by the year 2000 (which, by the way, still sounds like it should be in the future), and Star Trek would be a reality by the time I reached middle-age.

But as it happens, the farthest we’ve got is 13.8 billion miles (as at February 15, 2020). Now I know that sounds a long way, and my Ford Focus would struggle with it, but in interstellar terms it only just barely qualifies as “interstellar” at all. The region Voyager 1 is currently exploring is thought to be just beyond the extent of the Sun’s influence, and therefore deserves the name “interstellar”. The problem is, it has taken 42 years to get there, and will almost certainly run out of battery power before it reaches anywhere else interesting (like the Oort Cloud).

1868 – Asteroids 96 Aegle and 97 Klotho were discovered today, but by different people. Aegle was spotted by Corsican astronomer Jérôme Coggia (the first of his five asteroids), and Klotho was found by Ernst Tempel, who also discovered five asteroids, but was, like Coggia, more of a comet man.

1873 Asteroid 130 Elektra discovered by C H F Peters. Elektra is an elongated (roughly 215 x 112 km) G-type asteroid in the outer main belt. G-types are relatively uncommon, but among their number is Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered.

Elektra (with Orestes and Hermes) at the tomb of Agamemnon. Louvre, Paris.
Elektra (with Orestes and Hermes) at the tomb of Agamemnon. Louvre, Paris.

Electra, in Greek mythology, was a Princess of Argos, a city on the Peloponnese. She helped her brother, Orestes, kill their mother Clytemnestra (who had murdered their father, Agamemnon). A detail from the story is depicted on the ‘red figure’ pelike shown above. A pelike is a ceramic container of similar design to an amphora, but with the advantage that it can stand up on its own.

1879 Johann Palisa discovers S-type asteroid 192 Nausikaa. It is named after a princess in the Odyssey, the daughter of King Alkinous of Phaeacia. Nausikaa is approximately 90 km wide, with an apparent magnitude of 7.13.

1959 Launch of weather satellite Vanguard 2, with a 19-day mission to study cloud cover. Despite the limited extent of the working life, Vanguard 2 is still up there, and is not expected to come back down for another 250 years or so.

February 16 – Miranda

Also known as Uranus V, Miranda was discovered by Gerard P Kuiper on February 16th 1948, making it the last Uranian moon to be discovered by Earth-based observing equipment. We have some fairly good shots of Miranda’s southern hemisphere taken by Voyager 2, which paid a visit in 1986. These show this small moon (only one seventh the size of our own Moon) to be an interesting place, crossed by grooves and enormous canyons, some more than ten times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Miranda, in common with the other larger Uranian moons, is thought to be composed of mostly silicates and water ice.

Miranda (image credit: NASA)
Miranda (image credit: NASA)

Obviously there must always remain a degree of uncertainty regarding the composition of a place we’ve only been to once, rather fleetingly, for ‘Tis far off, and rather like a dream than an assurance (Act 1, Scene 2). Miranda is the only female character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

1880 – Asteroid 213 Lilaea discovered by C H F Peters. Lilaea is approximately 83 km across, has a year lasting four and a half Earth years, a day lasting just over 8 hours, and is named after a Naiad (water nymph).

1891305 Gordonia is a 49 km wide main belt asteroid, discovered by Auguste Charlois and named after his patron, James Gordon Bennett Jr, publisher of the New York Herald, and thought to be the man from whom we get the exclamation “Gordon Bennett!”.

1965 – launch of Pegasus 1, via Saturn I rocket number SA-9 from Cape Kennedy to study the effects of micrometeoroid impact, which it achieved by use of two giant wings, unfurled upon reaching orbit. Pegasus 1 remained operational until it was deactivated on August 29th 1968. It remained in orbit until 1978.

February 15 – The Cat’s Eye Nebula

NGC 6543

Everybody’s seen photographs of this one, but that’s no reason to not show it again: it’s the Cat’s Eye Nebula, otherwise known as NGC 6543, (or “Caldwell 6″ in Patrick Moore’s list of more challenging, non-Messier objects), an expanding cloud of mostly hydrogen and helium, discovered on February 15th 1786 by William Herschel.

Hubble image of the Cat's Eye Nebula (image credit: NASA/ESA)
Hubble image of the Cat’s Eye Nebula (image credit: NASA/ESA)

The nebula is one of the most complex we know of, and was formed around 1,000 years ago when the star (or stars – it may be a binary system) at its centre lost its outer shell. That star, smaller than the Sun but approximately 10,000 times as luminous, is what is responsible for the nebula being lit up like a Christmas tree.

NGC 6543 is around 3,000 light years away and has an observed density of about 5,000 particles per cubic cm.

Launched on February 15th 1973 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Prognoz 3‘s purpose was to study solar flares, and help increase our understanding of how the Sun’s activity affects the Earth’s magnetosphere. Prognoz launches took place at an impressive rate. Getting the entire fleet of 10 satellites off the ground only took 54 weeks.

Asteroid 442 Eichsfeldia was discovered on February 15th, 1899, by Max Wolf and Arnold Schwassman. It’s a C-type main belt asteroid of approximately 65 km diameter.


February 13 – Discovery of asteroid 473 Nolli (1901)

Asteroid 473 Nolli is a fairly obscure beast. I thought I was doing a pretty darn good job at hiding my blog from the world, but if I ever wore a hat (I don’t: I look even more ridiculous in one) I would have to take it off to Nolli, for remaining in hiding for a length of time that would even give Lord Lucan a run for his money.

Discovered by Max Wolf on February 13th 1901, Nolli was then not seen again until 1987. It is of unknown size (it is thought to be in the range 10 to 20 km diameter) and of unknown spectral class. It may or may not be a member of the Eunomia family, but we aren’t sure yet. We do know the orbital characteristics, though; but not the albedo or rotation period.

We also know where the name Nolli came from. It is a pet name of one of the children in the Wolf household. I’m not sure which one, though, as their names were Franz, Ernst and Werner.


Aphelion (2006 03 06) 2.946 AU
Perihelion 2.383 AU
Semi-major Axis 2.664 AU
Orbital Period 1588.361 days
Eccentricity 0.106
Average Orbital Speed 18.2 km/s
Inclination 12.91°
Mean Anomoly 85.936°
Longitude of Ascending Node 332.405°
Argument of Perihelion 153.614°

On the same day he discovered Nolli, Wolf also found the next asteroid in the list, 474 Prudentia. We don’t know a great deal more about this one either. Prudentia is about 37 km in diameter, and has an absolute magnitude of 10.6. As far as composition goes though, it’s still an unknown quantity, which has led it to be classified as an X type, the name signifying that the chemical make-up of the asteroid can’t be determined by analysis of the visible wavelength.

The name Prudentia is, obviously, the Latin form of Prudence. Prudence is, as I’m sure we have all been told at some point, a virtue, making her one of the seven virtues first identified by Greek philosophers, then taken up by Christians as a set of desirable character traits. virtues are split into two groups: the older cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude) and the newer theological virtues of St Paul (faith, hope and charity/love).

Dear Prudence
Dear Prudence

We have an engraving for you today. It is by the Italian abbot and artist Pietro Antonio Pazzi, and dates from 1762. It depicts Prudentia as envisaged by Domenico Zampieri in the frescoes he painted for the Abbey of Grottaferrata (a small town to the south east of Rome).

February 10 – Discovery of Asteroid 624 Hektor (1907)

Asteroid 624 Hektor was discovered on February 10th 1907 by August Kopff, a German astronomer working out of the Humboldt University of Berlin, who eventually discovered 68 asteroids.

Being numbered 624 would normally put it below the radar, but this one gets a mention because it is the largest of the Jupiter trojans.  It’s a reddish D-type asteroid (as are the majority of Jupiter trojans) and lies at the L4 Lagrangian point (in other words it precedes Jupiter in its orbit).

L4 Jupiter trojans are supposed to be named after characters from the Greek side of the Trojan Wars.  Hektor is therefore misnamed, as he was on the Trojan side (617 Patroclus is also in a similar predicament, being a Greek hero in the Trojan camp at the L5 Lagrangian point).

Hector Reproaches Paris, by Pierre Delorme (1783-1859).
Hector Reproaches Paris, by Pierre Delorme (1783-1859).

Hektor measures 370 km long by 200 km wide, an unusual shape for an asteroid, leading astronomers to conclude that it might be a “binary”, two conventionally shaped asteroids drawn together by their mutual gravitational pull.  Observations indicate this may well be the case, but with an object of that size at such a great distance, it’s hard to be absolutely sure.

Hektor has also been shown to have a moon, about 12 km in diameter, going by the name S/2006 (624) 1.  Around 6,000 Jupiter trojans are known at present (although there are thought to be around a million up there of over 1 km diameter).  At present, Hektor is the only one at L4 thought to be a binary, and the only one known to have a satellite.

Hektor (you can call him Hector if you like, but there is no “C” in the Greek alphabet), as you may know, was the son of King Priam and Queen Hekabe, and the greatest Trojan hero of the wars, making it all the more unusual that he should be named as one of the Greek asteroids.



February 09 – Apollo 14 Splashdown

We have a collection of shorts today, starting on February 9th 1882 with the possibly C-type, 55km wide, main belt asteroid 222 Lucia, discovered by Johann Palisa.  Lucia is a Themistian asteroid, one of a group sharing orbital properties with 22 Themis. It was named after the daughter of the Arctic explorer and president of the Austrian Geographical Society, Count Johann Nepomuk (Hans) Wilczek 02/12/1837 – 27/01/1922).

On this day in 1905, 558 Carmen was discovered by Max Wolf.  It is an M type main belt asteroid of about 59km diameter.

And now, in the interests of détente, we have one item each from either side of the iron curtain in the same year, 1971, starting with the launch of Cosmos (or Kosmos) 394 by the USSR. Launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the north west of Russia into a low Earth orbit of 522 km (324 miles) Kosmos 394 (or 1971-010A if you prefer) was part of the testing programme for Soviet anti-weapons systems. As (i) it played the role of a target, and (ii) the test was a success, I wouldn’t bother trying to find it I the night sky.

February 9th, 1971 also saw the splashdown of Apollo 14, containing Alan Shepherd, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, in the South Pacific Ocean. Roosa had worked, in a pre-NASA life, as a forestry smokejumper (guys who were parachuted into inaccessible areas to fight wildfires). As a result, he was thought the ideal candidate to take 500 seeds of several species of tree into lunar orbit.

Colonel Stuart A "Stu" Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)
Colonel Stuart A “Stu” Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)

On their return to Earth the seeds were germinated, and the resulting Moon trees were planted across the United States (they were also sent to Italy, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland).

February 08 – Discovery of 183 Istria (1878) and others

Asteroid 283 Emma was spotted by Auguste Charlois on this very day in 1889. It’s a large, potato-shaped main-belt asteroid about 150 to 160km wide (opinions vary). Emma has a tiny companion, as yet unnamed, and so going by the official designation S/2003 (283) 1, of about 10km diameter. Why the name Emma was chosen remains a mystery.

Exactly eleven years and one hundred discoveries earlier we have S-type asteroid 183 Istria, discovered on February 8th 1878 by Johann Palisa from his observatory at the city of Pula (on the Istrian peninsula). Palisa was Austrian, and at that time Istria was part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire.

Pula, Istria.
Pula, Istria.

Asteroid Istria is about 35km in diameter, and has an absolute magnitude of about 9.6. It takes 1703 Earth days to make one journey around the Sun, rotating once in just under 12 hours as it does so.

1907 Asteroid 636 Erika discovered by Joel Hastings Metcalf, American astronomer, optical wizard and Unitarian minister. Erika is a fairly ordinary size for the main belt, at about 74km diameter.

1974 The last Skylab crew (Gerrard P Carr, William R Pogue and Edward G Gibson) returns to Earth after their 84-day mission. The estimated cost of keeping an astronaut on Skylab is scary: taking into account the total overall cost of the project, it was $20m per astronaut per day. (Figure is from “Cost of Piloted US Space Programs” , Claude Lafleur, Space Review, 08-03-2010.)

February 06 – Asteroid 212 Medea

Asteroid 212 Medea was discovered from Pula (or Pola) in Croatia by Johann Palisa on February 6th 1880.  It’s another big main-belter, about 144 km (90 miles) across, with, in the absence of much else to say about it, the following orbital characteristics, plucked from the JPL Small Body Database:

Epoch 27 April 2019
Aphelion 3.464 AU
Perihelion 2.804 AU
Semi-Major Axis 3.124 AU
Eccentricity 0.103
Orbital Period 5.49 years
Average Orbital Speed 16.88 km/s
Inclination 4.265°
Longitude of Ascending Node 313.059°
Argument of Perihelion 102.928°
Mean Anomaly 205.318°

Medea is our second Greek tragedy in two days.  This one is by Euripides (c. 484 to 406 BC), the most modern of the “big three” Athenian dramatists.  He was about fifty when he wrote it, and it was perhaps a little too much for his audience, who placed it last in the City Dionysia of 431 BC, behind Sophocles in second, and Euphorion (son of the more famous Aeschylus) who won.

Jason & Medea (Carle van Loo, 1705-65)
Jason & Medea (Carle van Loo, 1705-65)

Medea was the wife of Jason (of “and the Argonauts” fame).  She obviously had a sharp temper, shown most vividly by her killing her own children to spite Jason after he’d had a fling with the daughter of the King of Corinth.

February 05 – Discovery of Asteroid 129 Antigone (1873)

Asteroid 129 Antigone was discovered on February 5th, 1873 by C H F Peters. It’s a fairly regularly shaped body of about 120 km across, and is composed of a nickel-iron mix, putting it firmly in the metallic M class, and leading scientific types to conclude that it is probably the remains of the core of a planetesimal, destroyed at some point in the dim and distant past.

Antigone, as you know, was the daughter of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, and Jocasta, his queen (and mother). Basically, after Oedipus’ death, Antigone upsets King Creon, Oedipus’ predecessor,  who had taken the opportunity to rule Thebes again after Oedipus’ sons had fallen out with one another in a big way.  The upset comes about as a result of Antigone trying to arrange a decent burial for her brother Polynices, who was regarded as a traitor.  Long story short: she hangs herself, and her beau (Creon’s son Hæmon) kills himself in his grief.

Oedipus and Antigone (Aleksander Kokular)
Oedipus and Antigone (Aleksander Kokular)

The depiction of Oedipus and Antigone above is by the amazingly-named Aleksander Kokular (1793 – 1846) a Polish painter and educator, and co-founder of the Warsaw School of Fine Arts.  He was well-known for his mythological (as you can see) and religious works.

The story of Antigone with which most of us are familiar comes from Sophocles’ three Theban Plays (there are three of them, but they’re not a trilogy).  I can`t recommend the Theban Plays highly enough.  I consider Sophocles to be way above Aeschylus and Euripides when it comes to tales of misery and woe.  Euripides did actually write an Antigone himself; the text is lost, but it’s known that tragedy is averted in this version by divine intervention.  That’s not what I want!  It’s supposed to be a tragedy!  Make it tragic!
And I’m going to get really nerdy now, and say try to get the E F Watling translation.  Robert Fagles is fine, but Watling is my preference.

A Classic.
A Classic.

Today’s second photograph is the front cover of my latest copy of the Theban Plays (Penguin Classics).  It shows Oedipus dressed as a traveller (in other words wearing a hat and carrying a staff) pondering the riddle of the Sphinx.

1877  –  S-type asteroid 172 Baucis discovered by Alphonse Borrelly, and named after a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

1987  –  Japanese X-Ray satellite Ginga (otherwise known as Astro-C) was launched.  It sounds like an acronym, but it isn’t.  It’s Japanese for “galaxy”.


2002  –  The Reuvan Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (HESSI, or RHESSI) was launched to study solar flares, with a view to working out why they occur, and how so much energy can be released in such a short time.  Reuvan Ramaty, by the way, was an expert in cosmic rays, and one of the original members of the HESSI team.  Unfortunately he died on April 8th, 2001, less than a year before launch.