March 17 – Jim Irwin

March 17th 1930: astronaut Colonel James Benson Irwin, USAF, born in Pittsburgh PA.

James Irwin (image credit: NASA)

James Irwin (image credit: NASA)

In 1971 Irwin, Apollo 15 lunar module pilot, became the eighth man to walk on the Moon, spending over 18 hours on the surface.  He also, on his return, became one of the first people to be grounded, quite literally, for smuggling postage stamps into space.

1852  –  Asteroid 16 Psyche was discovered on March 17th 1852 by Annibale de Gasparis.  Psyche is a large asteroid, about 200 km in diameter, accounting for about 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt.  It’s an M-type asteroid, probably mostly nickel and iron.

Cupid and Psyche (Van Dyck)

Cupid and Psyche (Van Dyck)

Psyche is named for a mythological princess, who caught the eye of the god Cupid.  The story is told by Lucius Apuleius in The Golden Ass.

In early 2017 NASA announced plans to  send a probe to Psyche in 2023, as part of their Discovery Program, the main reason being that, as a metallic asteroid, it represents one of the few classes of objects in our neighbourhood that haven’t yet been visited.

1899  –  Saturn’s moon Phoebe discovered by American astronomer W H Pickering.  It, too, is about 200 km in diameter, and may be a captured centaur from the Kuiper belt.  We have some spectacular photographs of Phoebe following the visit of the Cassini spacecraft in 2004.

Phoebe (image credit: NASA)

Phoebe (image credit: NASA)




November 18 – Alan Shepard

Rear Admiral Alan B Shepard was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18th, 1923. He served with the US Navy during World War II, and became a test pilot before being selected as one of the “Mercury Seven”, NASA’s original group of astronauts, who’s members went on to fly in all four US manned space programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle). Shepard was the only one of the seven to walk on the Moon (Apollo 14), and also holds the records for being the oldest person to do so, and for the longest stay on the lunar surface (33 hours).

Alan "Al" Shepard (image credit: NASA)

Alan Shepard (image credit: NASA)

Al Shepard only went into space twice. His first journey was an extremely brief quarter of an hour, aboard the Mercury craft Freedom 7, on May 5th, 1967, with his second being the substantially longer Apollo 14 mentioned previously (January 31st to February 9th, 1971).

Al Shepard died on July 21st, 1998.

The launch of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was on this day in 1989 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. COBE was also known as Explorer 66, part of the United States’ apparently never-ending Explorer series of satellites that has been running since 1958.

2013  –  Launch of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission.  After a journey of 442 million miles, completed in just under ten months, MAVEN was inserted into orbit around Mars on September 21st 2014.  The goal of the mission was to find out how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost.


November 14 – The White Stuff

The first American to walk in space, Edward Higgins “Ed” White, was born on November 14th 1930, in San Antonio, Texas.

The son of a distinguished USAF major general, it was probably obvious from an early age that flying would figure big in his career, and after graduating from West Point in 1952 he joined the Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant.  After a spell at Bitburg Air Force Base in West Germany, he gained a masters degree in aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Lt Col Edward White (image credit: NASA)

Lt Col Edward White (image credit: NASA)

White was part of NASA’s 1962 second group of nine astronauts, and was quickly chosen to be the pilot of Gemini 4, and the first American to conduct an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) on June 3rd, 1965.  I have to add the word “American” because, as with so many firsts in the space race, the Russians had just pipped them to the post with Alexey Leonov, who spent 12 minutes outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, on March 18th.  Unsurprisingly, White had to be ordered back inside his craft from the ground, as he was reluctant to end the experience.

Ed White having the time of his life. (Image credit: NASA.)

Ed White having the time of his life. (Image credit: NASA.)

At the start of the Apollo program, White was a fairly obvious choice to be part of the first manned flight, but on February 21st, 1967, when he, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, entered Apollo 1 for a launch rehearsal, three weeks before the planned launch date, a fire broke out in the cabin, killing all three.

1969  ⇒  Launch of Apollo XII, the second manned Moon landing (Conrad, Bean and Gordon).

2003  ⇒  Discovery of trans-Neptunian object 90377 Sedna by  Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz, using the Palomar Quest camera.


October 03 – Charles Duke

Brigadier General Charles Moss “Charlie” Duke Jr was born today in 1935 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1957, and served as a fighter pilot in West Germany and an instructor back home.

Brigadier General Charles Duke (image: NASA)

Brigadier General Charles Duke (image: NASA)

Duke was snapped up by NASA in 1966 as part of their fifth group of astronauts.  He was originally intended to be part of the Apollo 13 crew but wasn’t able to go due to illness.  So it was as Lunar Module pilot onboard Apollo 16 where he made his name in April 1972, taking himself and John W Young for a three day (almost) adventure in the Descartes Highlands, to the west of the Mare Nectaris.  Apollo 16 was Duke’s only spaceflight, but he made the most of the opportunity by leaving a family photograph on the surface.

The Family Duke, 1972. (image: NASA)

The Family Duke, 1972. (image: NASA)

1886  –  Discovery of asteroid 260 Huberta by Johann Palisa.

1890  –  Discovery of asteroid 300 Geraldina by Auguste Charlois.

1962  –  Launch of Mercury-Atlas 8 carrying astronaut Walter M Schirra.

1985  –  Launch of shuttle mission STS-51-J, the first of Atlantis.

July 21 – Small Step; Big day

July 21st 1969 is going to take some beating as far as big days go.  I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s just really obvious that nobody has ever done anything even remotely as impressive as walking on the Moon.  The more one thinks about it, the less likely it seems that it was even possible with 1960′s technology (don’t forget that the processors used in the guidance system were smaller than the ones available in home computers just a decade later, and my android phone is obviously from a different planet).

Pretty big shoes to fill (image credit: NASA)

Pretty big shoes to fill (image credit: NASA)

Maybe something to top it will come along eventually (the first gay pope to visit  Mars, maybe?) but in the meantime, here are a couple of other events being commemorated in the enormous shadow thrown by Neil Armstrong’s boots.

1914  –  Discovery of Jupiter’s moon Sinope by S B Nicholsonwhile he was working as a summer assistant at Lick Observatory.  The ninth satellite of Jupiter to be spotted, Sinope was, as I say, discovered in 1914, but didn’t receive a proper name until 1975; until then it was simply “Jupiter IX”.  It was named, along with eight other moons, “on the recommendation of the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature” of the IAC.  Nicholson’s discovery was slightly serendipitous, as he was actually photographing “Jupiter VIII” at the time with the 36-inch British-built Crossley Reflector, a device the observatory had bought from it’s previous owner when it became obvious that the skies above Halifax, England, were a waste of a large telescope.

1998  –  RIP Alan Shepard.  Shepard (another of the Mercury Seven) was, as commander of Apollo 14, the fifth man on the Moon, and the first to play golf there.  It’s perhaps just as well that the Americans conquered the Moon.  I doubt the effect would have been quite the same when the first Briton on the surface got his dartboard out.

1961  – Launch of MR-1, the first unmanned spacecraft of the Mercury project.  A spectacular failure, it managed to attain an altitude of four inches in a flight lasting 2 seconds.

2006  –  Discovery of Actaea, the satellite of trans-Neptunian object  120347 Salacia.

July 18 – John Glenn

Today marks the birth, in 1921, of John Herschel Glenn, Jr, recently deceased (December 8th 2016) but liver of quite a full life, of Scottish descent (I believe he also had relatives in Sheffield), and born in Cambridge, Ohio.  Reading that sentence back the word “liver” sounds a bit anatomical, but I’m going with it anyway.

Glenn was a member of Astronaut Group 1, more commonly known as the Mercury Seven, the original hand-picked, hard-boiled, right-stuff-infused group of astronauts selected by NASA in 1959, who had a presence in all of the classes of manned American spacecraft of the twentieth century (MercuryGeminiApollo and Shuttle).

John Herschel Glenn Jr, of the clan Glenn-Macintosh. (Image credit: NASA).

John Herschel Glenn Jr, of the clan Glenn-Macintosh. (Image credit: NASA).

Here’s a potted history of some of John Glenn’s achievements:  fighter pilot in the South Pacific, North China and Korea; test pilot; first supersonic transcontinental flight; first American to orbit the Earth; senator (Democrat); oldest person in space.

On a slightly less joyous and happy-birthdayous note, he managed to get himself caught up in the Lincoln Savings and Loan affair, and was for a time opposed to the inclusion of women in NASA’s astronaut program.  That said, I still don’t know how a man who had once had a ticker-tape parade through New York in his honour later managed to lose the vice-presidential race to career politician and sometime lawyer Walter Mondale, a man who would later go on to suffer one of the biggest landslide defeats in US presidential election history.

Walter Mondale is of Norwegian descent, and the ancestral family home is the village of Fjærland, on a tributary of the Sognefjord, which gives me an extremely tenuous reason to end with one of my own photographs, taken a mere ten miles or so downstream from chez Mondale in 2010.

Sognefjord, 2010. (Image credit: me.)

Sognefjord, 2010. (Image credit: me.)

1966  –  Launch of Gemini X (command pilot John W Young and pilot Michael Collins) from Cape Canaveral launch site LC-19.  This was the sixteenth manned American spaceflight.

1997  –  Death of Eugene Shoemaker, astrogeologist, and co-discoverer of comets (along with his wife and David Levy).  Of their combined tally, the most important was  probably Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994.

June 18 – William Lassell

At last, a local lad (almost).  William Lassell was born in Bolton, Lancashire, on this day in 1799.  And it gets even more local for us Liverpool residents, because he went on to live in Norton Street (mostly a coach station now, and I don’t think there’s a single house left there today so a blue plaque is unlikely) and later a house called Starfield in West Derby,  a mere twenty minute drive from here (it would be ten minutes, but it’s along Queens Drive, a collection of traffic lights joined by short stretches of road).

William Lassell

William Lassell

Keeping up this month’s vague Neptunian theme, William Lassell’s biggest claim to fame was that he discovered the moon Triton a mere 17 days after Johann Galle discovered Neptune.  His whopping 24-inch self-ground reflector at Starfield was probably a major reason why he was also able to discover Saturn’s moon Hyperion in 1848, and two Uranian moons, Ariel and Umbriel (1851).  It was also the main reason why he was visited, in 1850, by the great Russian-American astronomer Otto Struve, who was keen to compare it to his own 15″ refractor.

After several years of observing in Malta (he had decided that Liverpool skies in the 1850s were not ideal, his house occasionally being mockingly referred to asCloudfield) Lassell moved back to England and settled in Maidenhead in Kent, to where he had the 24-inch telescope relocated.  He died there in 1880.

Starfield, West Derby (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Starfield, West Derby (©Trustees of the British Museum).

Annoyingly, Starfield seems to have been obliterated from the face of West Derby.  On Ordnance Survey maps of a century ago there appears a “Starfield Street”, presumably built on the crushed remains of Lassell’s residence, but it, too, has disappeared.

1878  –  Asteroid 188 Menippe was discovered by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters in New York.

2002  –  Minor planet 2002 MS4 (the second largest unnamed object in the solar system) was discovered by Chad Trujillo and Michael E. Brown.  It is estimated to be 800 to 900 km in diameter, putting it potentially within reach of the title “dwarf planet”.

 2016  –  I have an addendum to today’s post.  British astronaut Tim Peake landed in Kazakhstan this morning following a successful tour to the International Space Station.

May 30 – Messier 12

1764  –  Discovery of globular cluster Messier 12 (NGC 6218) by Charles Messier.

Messier 12 from the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: NASA / STScl / ESA)

Messier 12 from the Hubble Space Telescope (image credit: NASA / STScl / ESA)

M12 is approximately 75 light years across, at a distance from Earth of about 15,700 light years.  It can be located as a faint fuzz in the constellation Ophiuchus with good binoculars, but needs a fairly hefty telescope to bring out detail.

Extrasolar planet MOA-2007-BLG-192Lb (or just MOA-192b to its friends) was discovered orbiting the low mass red dwarf of the same name (but without the “b”) on May 30, 2008. Spotted by the MOA-II gravitational microlensing survey, it is one of the smaller known extrasolar planets (about 3 times the mass of Earth) and has an appropriately tiny parent star of about 6% the size of the Sun.

1903 – Asteroid 511 Davida discovered in 1903 by R S Dugan and named after astronomer David Peck Todd.

2007 – Saturn’s tiny moon Anthe was first spotted in Cassini images. 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.

1963 – Happy birthday Helen Sharman, OBE, Sheffield native, chocolate chemist and first Briton in space.  She flew on Soyuz flight TM-12 to the Mir space station.  It was her only mission.

April 27 – Apollo 16 Returns Home

We have two spaceflight-related events today. The first is the splashdown of Apollo 16, about which I have written elsewhere. I’m mentioning it mainly to get this brilliant photograph in.

Apollo 16 Arrives (image: NASA)

Apollo 16 Arrives (image: NASA)

The second is from the other side of the iron curtain . . .

We have a birthday boy today, and it’s the man who has spent more time away from Earth on a single trip than anyone else in history. From 1994 to 1995 Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov stayed aboard the Mir space station continuously for 437 days, completing over 7,000 orbits of the Earth.

Polyakov (born Korshunov – he changed his name when he was adopted by his stepfather) was born in Tula, Russia, on April 27th 1942, and studied at the I M Sechenov Medical Institute in Moscow, specialising in space medicine. This helped get him selected as a cosmonaut in 1972, although he didn’t get his first flight until 1988, a brief (by his standards) 240 days.

The main event, in 1994, also gave him the record for the longest total time spent in space, though this has since been broken. The purpose of such a long stint was to see how astronauts would react physically and mentally to a long-duration flight to Mars, and whether they would be capable of doing any decent work when they arrived. The results were promising, with no evidence of long-term performance problems following his return to Earth.

Polyakov retired from cosmonauting in 1995, and became deputy director of the Ministry of Public Health in Moscow.


April 11 – Piers Sellers: British Astronaut

Piers John Sellers was born today in 1955.  Who?  Good question.  Sellers is a member of a group even smaller than the one comprising people who have been to the Moon: he’s a British astronaut.   I know of only seven potential members of this community, and nearly all of those have dual nationality.

Piers Sellers: British-born astronaut (image credit: NASA)

Piers Sellers: British-born astronaut (image credit: NASA)

Because NASA only wanted Americans to fly their shuttles at the time (quite understandable) Sellers had to become a naturalized US citizen in 1991 in order to have his job application considered.  But, even so, he was born in Sussex, went to school in Kent, flew for the RAF and studied in Edinburgh.  So he’s still British.

Sellers made three shuttle flights: STS-112 (Atlantis, October 2002), STS-121 (Discovery, July 2006), and STS-132 (Atlantis again, May 2010). He spent over 35 days in space, and performed 6 EVAs (spacewalks).

1878  –  Asteroid 187 Lamberta was discovered by the Corsican astronomer Jérôme Eugène Coggia.  It was named after Johann Heinrich Lambert, the mathematician who proved that pi is an irrational number.  Lamberta is a carbonaceous (C-type) main belt asteroid of approximately 131 km diameter.

Asteroid 530 Turandot was discovered by renowned astrophotographer Max Wolf from his observatory in Heidelberg on April 11, 1904. It is an “F-type”, a spectral class very similar to the carbonaceous B-types, and classified with them in the C-group. According to IRAS data in the JPL Small-Body Database Browser, Turandot is approximately 85 km in diameter.

1970  –   You’ve probably seen the film, and there’s loads been written about it, so I won’t dwell on this, but today was the launch day, in 1970, of the ill-fated Apollo 13.

Apollo 13 Crew

Apollo 13 Crew

The crew of Apollo 13 were Jim Lovell (in his fourth and final spaceflight), Jack Swigert and Fred Haise (pictured in that order from left to right in the photo).