May 19 – Discovery of Asteroid 14 Irene

Asteroid 14 Irene, was discovered on this day in 1851 by the Nottingham-born astronomer John Russell Hind (1823 – 1895).

Being the size she is (about 150km in any direction) and having such an early discovery date and low classification number, I’m amazed it’s taken me five years to get around to her.

Irene is an “S” type asteroid, meaning her composition is of a siliceous nature. S-types are generally brighter than the much more common “C-type” carbonaceous asteroids, presumably making them easier to spot back in the early days of asteroid hunting.

Roman Statue of Eirene with the infant Plutos (God of Wealth).

In mythology, Irene, or Eirene, was one of a collection of deities called the Horae. The root of this name is from the word “year”, and the Horae were originally in charge of the seasons.  Later though, more of them were employed to look after some of the more nebulous aspects of the natural order of things, such as peace (out friend Eirene here), plant growth (Auxo), moral justice (Diké) and law (Eunomia).


1874 —  Discovery of asteroid 138 Tolosa by Henri Joseph Perrotin. Tolosa is the Latin version of Toulouse.

1881  —  Discovery of asteroid 220 Stephania (Princess Stephanie of Belgium) by Johann Palisa.

1893  —  Discovery of asteroids 367 Amicitia (friendship) and 368 Haidea (unknown name), both by Auguste Charlois.

Created May 2019.


May 17 – Birth of Norman Lockyer

Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer was born on May 17th 1836 in Rugby.  He has two main claims to fame: founding the journal Nature (which I used to read occasionally until I realized I couldn’t understand a word of it) and the quite tricky discovery of the inert, colorless, tasteless, odourless gas helium, which, because he first identified it in solar spectra, he named after the handsome Greek god of the Sun, Helios.

Norman Lockyer
Norman Lockyer

1887  –  Asteroid 266 Aline discovered by Johann Palisa.  Aline is a C-type asteroid in the main belt, and measures a chunky 108(-ish) km in diameter.  According to the Dictionary of Minor Planet Names by Lutz D Schmadel, the name might be a nod to Linda (“Aline”) Weiss, one of the seven children of the director of Vienna Observatory, Edmund Weiss.  This is quite possible, because Palisa’s previous discovery (265 Anna) had been named for Weiss’s daughter-in-law.

Last updated: May 08, 2019.

May 16 – Discovery of Asteroid 87 Sylvia

Asteroid 87 Sylvia was discovered on May 16th 1866 by N R Pogson, author of the Madras Catalogue of stars, at Madras Observatory.

Sylvia is a large asteroid in the Cybele group of bodies in the outer core of the main belt.  She is an x-type asteroid, with “x” in this case doing its usual job of signifying the uncertainty surrounding their composition.

Sylvia is named after Rhea Silvia, descendant of Aeneas, daughter of Numitor, and, in an unusual career move for a Vestal Virgin, mother of Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome who as babies were set adrift on the river Tiber by a servant who had been ordered to kill them, later to be found and suckled by a wolf who had lost her cubs.

Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena, Spain.
Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena, Spain.

Sylvia has two satellites. They were given the fairly obvious names of Romulus (discovered in 2001) and Remus (2004).

1888  –  Discovery of asteroid 278 Paulina by Johann Palisa. Nobody is quite sure who Paulina, Paul or Paula was.

2011 saw the launch of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 02 (AMS-02) via shuttle Endeavour, to be mounted onboard the International Space Station.  AMS-02′s raison d’etre is to measure cosmic rays as part of the ongoing search for dark matter.  It seems to be working well so far, making 1,000 recordings a second, and passing the 90 billion mark in 2016.

AMS-02 Patch (NASA/JSC).

If particle physics is your thing, the AMS-02 website is probably where you’ll want to go next.

Last updated: May 2019.

May 14 – Discovery of Asteroid196 Philomela

Asteroid 196 Philomela was discovered by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters at Hamilton College, Clinton (New York) on May 14th 1879.  It is a large, bright, S-type (stony) main belt asteroid, and studies of light curve data have decided it is smooth and asymmetrically shaped.

Philomela and Procne showing Itys'head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses
Philomela and Procne showing Itys’ head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Philomela was the daughter of King Pandium I of Athens, and had a sister called Procne.  Procne’s husband, Tereus, raped Philomela, and according to Ovid, cut out her tongue.  To get her revenge Philomela wove a tapestry (she couldn’t just write it down?) telling her story, and sent it to her sister.  Procne took the news badly, killing her son by Tereus, boiling him, and serving him to her husband.

Tereus failed to see the funny side, and pursued the sisters with the aim of killing them.  But they prayed to the gods for assistance, and were transformed into birds (Procne a swallow, and Philomela a nightingale).

1917 –  Discovery of main belt asteroid 871 Amneris (a character in the opera Aida) by Max Wolf at the Heidelberg Observatory.  Amneris is now known to have its own small family of 20 or so asteroids.

1973   –   Unmanned launch of Skylab, the first orbiting space station of the United States.  Although the final manned mission left the station in 1974, Skylab remained potentially operational, and the plan was to move it into a higher orbit using the space shuttle.  Unfortunately the development of the shuttle took longer than planned, so NASA were forced to allow Skylab to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

2009   –   Launch of PLANCK by ESA and the Herschel Space Observatory (a joint mission by NASA and ESA). PLANCK was equipped with instruments to detect at infrared and microwave, while Herschel was the largest infrared telescope ever launched, with a primary mirror measuring 11 feet in diameter. Herschel’s mission ended on 29th April 2013, when the liquid helium needed to cool it’s instruments ran out. PLANCK lasted a little longer, being told to shut down on 23rd October the same year.

At time of writing (May 2019, the ESA/PLANCK website was still up and running.

Last updated: May, 2019.

May 12 – Asteroids 633 Zelima and 634 Ute

Asteroids 633 Zelima and 634 Ute were both discovered on May 12th, 1907 by German astronomer August Kopff (1882-1960) from the Heidelberg Observatory.

August Kopff

Ute was named after an acquaintance of the discoverer, because she had recently become engaged, but I have a problem with the prevailing theory regarding the naming of Zelima.  It’s officially “unknown”, which is fine, but the theory suggests it was plucked from thin air because the letters “Z” and “M” were in the provisional designation (the name before it had a name) of asteroid “1907 ZM”.

Now I never met the guy, but Kopff doesn’t strike me as being short of a name or two for his discoveries.  I”ve trawled through a load of them, and none of the rest seem to use this method.  Zelima is a German girl’s name, and according to it was at its most popular between 1900 and 1909.  So I suspect a better theory might be that today’s asteroid was named after the new daughter of one of Kopff’s friends or colleagues.

Created May 2019.


May 11 – Discovery of Asteroid 11 Parthenope

Main belt asteroid 11 Parthenope was discovered by Annibale de Gasparis on May 11th, 1850. It is an S-type, and about 153 km across. Parthenope, in Greek mythology, was one of the Sirens. She did not take failure well, drowning herself when she failed to entrap Odysseus with her singing failed to entrap Odysseus.

Odysseus being taunted by Parthenope and her gang.
Odysseus being taunted by Parthenope and her gang.

Today’s visual accompaniment is a detail from an Attic red-figure stamnos (storage jar) of about 500 BC by the Siren Painter (can you guess why?) from the British Museum. One of the Sirens, presumably Parthenope, is shown hurling herself into the sea. I like the outstretched “Go on then – drown yourself” hand gesture of the guy at the tiller.

1871 – Today sees the discovery of one of the most beautiful sights in the known Universe (my opinion), the unbarred spiral galaxy Messier 104, more commonly known as the sombrero galaxy. M104 was a late addition to the Messier list, not being officially included until 1923. This spectacular object is about 28 million light years from us, and measures 50,000 light years in diameter.

Hubble Space Telescope image of M104 (Image credit: NASA)
Hubble Space Telescope image of M104 (Image credit: NASA)

The sombrero galaxy is extremely bright, with a strong x-ray source at its centre, indicating the presence of a black hole. The black hole was confirmed by spectroscopic results obtained by Hubble.

LOcation Chart for M104. image credit: Free Star Charts (
Location Chart for M104. image credit: Free Star Charts (

1823 – Birth of John Russell Hind, discoverer of ten asteroids and several variable stars.

1883 – Asteroid 233 Asterope discovered by Alphonse Borrelly.

1904 – Asteroid 536 Merapi discovered by G H Peters, and named after a mountain in Sumatra.

1916 – Death of German physicist and astronomer Karl Schwarzschild, the man whose work gave us the Schwarzschild radius, the size to which an object of a certain mass must shrink for its escape velocity to become equal to that of light (a black hole, for example). The Schwarzschild radius of the Earth is just under 1 centimetre.

Last updated: May 08, 2019.

May 09 – Discovery of Asteroid 564 Dudu

Asteroid 564 Dudu was discovered on May 9th, 1905 by Paul Götz at Heidelberg, a hotbed of minor planet detecting at the time. Dudu is in the main belt, and measures about 49 to 50 km across.

Friedrich Nietzsche (from the title page of the first edition of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra')
Friedrich Nietzsche (from the first edition of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’)

The name Dudu comes from that of a fictional cat in Also Sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, a work in which humans are seen as being at a halfway stage between apes and super- or over-humans. Nietzsche obviously never watched Britain’s Got Talent.

Also today we have asteroid 565 Marbachia, discovered by Max Wolf, himself a veritable übermensch among asteroid hunters. Marbachia (named after Marbach, Germany) was also discovered at Heidelberg, possibly on the same telescope as Dudu.

Last updated: May 07, 2019.

September 13 – Babcock

Horace Welcome Babcock (fantastic name), astronomer and inventor, was born today in 1912, son of solar specialist Harold D Babcock.  Babcock junior was the chap who realised that changing the shape of mirrors can be used to reduce the distorting effect of turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere on light from distant objects (called adaptive optics). Unfortunately he made this discovery in the 1950s, roughly 40 years before the technology to actually do it became available.

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Asteroid 12 Victoria, named after the Roman goddess of Victory (and possibly the queen of the same name) was spotted by John Russell Hind on September 13th 1850.  It’s an S-type, which you will recall are the stony asteroids, the second most common group, most of whom are congregated in the inner main belt.  Victoria has an apparent magnitude varying between 8.7 and 12.8, suggesting she is either elongated or binary.

Victoria the goddess was very important to the Romans (much more than her predecessor Nike had been to the Greeks).  I’m guessing this had something to do with her rôle in deciding who would be victorious in battle.

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Asteroid 104 Klymene is a Themistian asteroid, discovered by J C Watson on September 13th 1868. The Themistians are a family of C-type asteroids, named after 24 Themis (and including 62 Erato, coming up tomorrow).

Klymene and Hera
Klymene and Hera

The name Klymene (or Clymene) crops up quite a few times in Greek mythology, but one of them, an attendant to Hera, stands out in my mind as being the most likely candidate for today’s rock, when you consider that the asteroid named immediately before this one was 103 Hera. This particular Klymene was an Oceanid (daughter of Oceanus) and you can see her, with Hera, in today’s picture, a detail of a depiction of the Judgement of Paris from the Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhle.

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September 12 – Gemini XI

Gemini XI, launched on September 12th 1966, was the 17th manned US spaceflight, and the 9th manned flight of the Gemini programme. It was crewed by Charles “Pete” Conrad and Richard “Dick” Gordon. The main aim of the mission was to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, to simulate the return of a Lunar Module to the Command/Service Module following a landing. Several such rendezvous were performed successfully, as well as two periods of extra-vehicular activity (that’s space walks to you and me).

The Crew of Gemini XI
The Crew of Gemini XI (image credit: NASA)

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Asteroid 59 Elpis  is a rather large, dark (albedo 0.04) C-type asteroid in the main belt. It has a diameter of 165 km.  Elpis was discovered by Jean Chacornac on September 12th 1860 (it was his last find). The name Elpis was chosen by Karl L Lithow, director of the Vienna Observatory. Elpis is the personification of ‘hope’ in Greek mythology, and was supposedly the only item left in Pandora’s pithos (jar, not box) after she had emptied it.

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Firstly, asteroid 117 Lomia was discovered by Alphonse Borrelly on September 12th 1871 from Marseilles. It has a nearly circular orbit, and in composition is somewhere between a C-type and an X-type. The origin of the name is unknown.

And secondly, asteroid 241 Germania (C-type, main belt) was discovered today in 1884 by Robert Luther in Düsseldorf. He named it, obviously, after his homeland.  I was tempted here to insert a photograph of a moustachioed general in a uniform and spiky helmet, but I resisted. No racial stereotypes here.

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September 11 – Messier 2

M2, or NGC 7089, is a globular cluster of about 150,000 stars in Aquarius. It was discovered twice: firstly by Jean-Dominique Maraldi on September 11th 1746, and again on the same date 14 years later (1760) by Charles Messier.

Messier 2 (aka NGC 7089)
Messier 2 (aka NGC 7089)

M2 is fairly large, as globular clusters go, at 175 light years across, a little more elliptical in shape than most, and quite elderly (13 billion years old). It is also heading slowly in our direction, at 5.3 km/second. ‘Slowly’, of course, is relative to other intra-galactic speeds. Travelling at three miles a second would be plenty fast enough to get you a speeding ticket down here, but up there it’s nothing special.

(image from
(image from

Theoretically, M2 is a naked eye object if the sky is dark enough, but in practice that doesn’t apply round here in the land of the midnight security lamp. I need at least the small ‘scope to see anything.

Asteroid 125 Liberatrix, discovered by Prosper Henry (or possibly Paul Henry: you can never be sure) on September 11th 1872. It appears to be an M-type, and is possibly the biggest remnant of a larger body.

As for the name, the theory is that it honours Adolphe Thiers, president of the French Republic and suppressor of the Commune, who had recently been instrumental in extracting France from the Franco-Prussian War, in which they were doing none too well.

Asteroid 202 Chryseïs was discovered on this very day in 1879 by C F H Peters. It is about 86 km in diameter, and completes one full rotation every 16 hours as it travels at 17 km/second on its 5.4 year journey around the Sun.

Chryses visit to Agamemnon to ransom his daughter Chryseis (Image: Habib M’henni / Wikimedia Commons)
Chryses visit to Agamemnon to ransom his daughter Chryseis (Image: Habib M’henni / Wikimedia Commons)

In Greek mythology, Chryseïs (also known as Astynome) is indirectly the cause of most of the action in the Iliad. She is captured and enslaved by Agamemnon in Book One, and his refusal to allow her to be ransomed by her father, a priest of Apollo, eventually leads to all sorts of issues.

And while we’re talking of Apollo, asteroid 101955 Bennu was discovered on September 11th 1999 by the LINEAR project. It’s an Apollo, which means it has an orbit that brings it close to Earth, but in the case of Bennu not close enough to hit us (not yet, anyway). This proximity to Earth has led to Bennu being chosen as the target of the Osiris-REX “sample return” mission, which departed planet Earth in September 2016, and will return laden with souvenirs in 2023.