November 18 – Birth of Alan Shepard (1923)

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).  On his first trip he became the first American in space, but not quite the first human, having been beaten by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin by just over three weeks.

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 11 – Launch of Pioneer 1 (1958)

Pioneer 1 was, naturally, the second launch of the Pioneer programme (the first had been called “Thor/Able 1“, a.k.a. Pioneer 0) . Pioneer 1 was launched on October 11th, 1958, and was the first launch by the newly created NASA, which had been set up in July of that year to replace the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, which was pronounced N A C A, not Nasser).

The mission was not an unqualified success, but did provide some useful data. The plan was to send Pioneer 1 into a lunar orbit, to study cosmic rays, micrometeorites, and Earth’s magnetic field. But, due to a premature shutdown of the second stage of the launch vehicle, Mission Control had to settle for a short lived, high Earth orbit instead (about 100,000 km). This was high enough to show the existence of the Van Allen belts, and to measure the density of micrometeorites in our vicinity, and oscillations in Earth’s magnetic field.

It turns out that micrometeorites, despite being only 50 microns to 2 mm in diameter, and weighing as little as 0.00000001 grammes, hurtle at speeds in excess of 10 km/second into the path of our planet to the tune of about 30,000 tonnes per year. It is estimated that approximately 10% of this bombardment survives to reach the surface.

Pioneer 1

On the subject of pioneers, today marks the death of Alexei Leonov (1934 – 2019) the first human to walk in space (March 18th, 1965). Leonov, whose father had once been declared an “enemy of the people”, was twice made a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honour his country could bestow, and twice awarded the Order of Lenin (the highest civilian honour).

October 03 – Birth of Astronaut Charles Duke (1935)

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)

As things stands (October 2019), Duke is the youngest person to have been to the Moon, but despite being one of that elite band, he is more famous for his voice than his face.  It was Duke who served as CAPCOM (“capsule communicator”) during the first Moon landing in 1969.  It’s his voice you can hear responding to the Apollo 11 crew as they approach the surface and touch down.

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.

August 08 – Happy St Dominic’s Day!

Today is the feast day of St Dominic, the patron saint of astronomers.

St Dominic (Claudio Coello, c.1685)
St Dominic (Claudio Coello, c.1685)

Dominic de Guzmán was born in Spain in 1170, and became founder of the Dominican order, which today numbers a relatively robust 6,000 or so friars.  It is thought he may have been an early member of the Spanish Inquisition (I bet you weren’t expecting that) and is actually seen in a painting by Peter Beruguette presiding over an auto-da-fé (a public act of penance by condemned heretics, popular with the Inquisition).

St Dominic is also indirectly and tenuously linked to the formation of Everton FC, a football club with its origins in the nineteenth century sporting ambitions of the St Domingo Methodist Church, Liverpool.

The High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite (HIPPARCOS) was launched today in 1989 by the European Space Agency, at the start of a successful four year career.  As well as being an only slightly tortured acronym, Hipparcos is a surprisingly accurate spelling of the Greek astronomer (but he’d be Turkish if he was born in the same town today) more commonly known as Hipparchus of Nicaea.  The homage is to his work on all kinds of trigonometric problems, including his insight into the precession of the equinoxes.  The greatest astronomer until Ptolemy, he is even suspected of devising a heliocentric (Sun at the centre) theory of the solar system, which he abandoned because it relied (correctly) on the orbits of the planets not being perfect circles.

The purpose of the Hipparcos mission was, very simply, to tell us where stars are, and where they are going relative to us.  Providing astronomers with a highly accurate frame of reference has allowed other, older astrometric measurements to be fine-tuned.  It has enabled us to calculate much better determinations for such things as the ages and masses of stars, and the rotation of the Galaxy.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


1991  –  Astronaut Jim Irwin (Apollo 15) died.

2001  –  Launch of the GENESIS spacecraft to collect a sample of the solar wind.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

July 25 – Apollo 11 Splashdown (1969)

On July 21st, 1969, the Eagle ascent stage, which had brought Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin back from the lunar surface to join Michael Collins in the Columbia command module, was jettisoned (it is thought to be on the surface somewhere) and the journey home began.

Apollo 11 Returns to Earth (image: NASA)

The task of picking up the crew fell to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, which had been sailing to the splashdown site since July 12 (before Apollo 11 had even launched). At a quarter to six in the morning, Columbia landed, upside down I believe, about 13 miles from the Hornet. Flotation bags were used to bring her the right way up and aid stability, and the astronauts were winched into a helicopter.

The crew of Apollo 11 (image: NASA)

Unfortunately, it was then straight to quarantine. In total, the astronauts spent three weeks isolated from direct contact with other humans (except the mission doctor, who was allowed in, but then had to stay with them).

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 and largely forgotten 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 – Birth of John Glenn (1921)

Today marks the birth, in 1921, of John Herschel Glenn, Jr,  (died December 8th 2016), 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, less happy-birthday-to-you-ous 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, just a 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. The mirror from Lassell’s telescope is now in the collection of Liverpool Museum.

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 as Cloudfield) 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 – An unashamedly Brit-centric entry. British astronaut Tim Peake (and others) landed in Kazakhstan on this day in 2016, following a successful tour to the International Space Station.

May 30 – Messier 12

Today’s main event is not dissimilar to yesterday’s. It happened in 1764, and was the discovery of a globular cluster, Messier 12, (or NGC 6218), by Charles Messier, one day after he discovered globular cluster M10. And at a casual glance, the photograph I’m using today looks remarkably similar to the one I used yesterday. But I’ve had a close look, and they definitely two different balls of stars.

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.

Location of M12 (image created using Stellarium)

I suppose the obvious question, with M10 on the 29th of May and M12 on the 30th is: what about Messier 11? Unfortunately for Charles M11 had already been discovered. He included it in his catalogue, but German astronomer Gottfired Kirch beat him to it by a mere 63 years. M11 is in the constellation of Scutum (the shield), and is commonly known as the “Wild Duck Cluster”.

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.