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.

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)



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).

March 25 – Titan

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and the second largest moon in the Solar System (behind Ganymede, which is only ever so slightly bigger), was discovered on March 25th 1655 by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.  As the first moon to be discovered around Saturn there was no immediate pressure on Huygens to find an impressive name for it, so he settled for Luna Saturni (Saturn’s moon).  It wasn’t until Cassini discovered a further four Saturnian moons that a naming system became an issue, and even then the solution wasn’t particularly imaginative (“Saturn IV” to start off with, then “Saturn VI” after a couple more were found).  It was John Herschellson of the more famous William, who came up with the name Titan, as well as the names of the other six saturnian moons known at the time.

Titan, with Tethys in the background (image: NASA)
Titan, with Tethys in the background (image: NASA)

Titan, as you can see from the picture below, is shy, and doesn’t like to show us a great deal of surface detail.  It is the only moon in the Solar System with a substantial atmosphere, so dense in fact that the surface pressure is about half as great again as on Earth.  It is also suspected of having the potential to support microbial life, making it a very tempting place for Earthlings to visit.

Titan from the Cassini Spacecraft (false colour image in Ultraviolet and Infrared). Image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.
Titan from the Cassini Spacecraft (false colour image in Ultraviolet and Infrared). Image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.

In the hierarchy of Saturnian moons, Titan is right at the top of the pile.  It has a mass of 1.34 x 1023 kg (that’s about twice the mass of our own lightweight moon) which makes it far and away the biggest, accounting for 96% of the combined mass of all Saturn’s satellites.

1928  –  Jim Lovell (commander of Apollo 13) born today in Cleveland, Ohio. Captain James Lovell, USN, is a veteran of four space flights (he was the first man to achieve the feat) totalling 29 days: Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8, and Apollo 13. He is also the only person to fly to the Moon twice without landing on it.

March 15 – Alan Bean

Captain Alan LaVern Bean, USN, was born on this day in 1932 in Wheeler, Texas (100 miles east of Amarillo).

Alan Bean on his way down. (Image credit: NASA)
Alan Bean about to do the almost impossible. (Image credit: NASA)

Bean clocked up 69 days in space aboard Apollo 12 (he was the 4th person to undertake the highly improbable act of walking on the Moon) and Skylab mission SL-3. Following his retirement from NASA, Bean turned his attention to painting. As far as I know, he is the only artist to incorporate genuine Moon dust into his work.

1853  –  Asteroid 78 Diana was discovered on March 15th, 1853 by Robert Luther, the German astronomer who discovered 24 asteroids. According to IRAS observations Diana is about 120 km across, a figure that matches quite well with the 116 km diameter obtained from observations of the occultation of star SAO 75392 in 1980. Diana is named after the Roman goddess of the hunt, and her Greek equivalent, Artemis, will be turning up in these pages later in the year (discovered September 16th, 1868).

1873  –  Asteroid 118 Peitho discovered by Robert Luther. This main belt asteroid is about 47 km in diameter, and categorised as S-type. There are a couple of Peitho‘s in Greek mythology, with the most likely candidate for this naming ceremony being the goddess of seduction, an attendant of Aphrodite. Her Roman name, Suada, presumably shares a root with the Latin persuadere , the place from where we get the middle English word persuasion.

1895Asteroid 400 Ducrosa discovered by Auguste Charlois. It was named after Joseph Ducros, a technician at the Nice Observatory.

March 14 – Eugene Cernan

Captain Eugene Andrew Cernan USN, born this day in 1934 in Chicago, Illinois.  A veteran of Gemini 9A and Apollo 10, Cernan was also last man back to the lunar module Challenger on the Apollo 17 mission, and therefore currently holds the honour of being the “last man on the Moon” (which is also the title of his memoir).  He is also a member of one of the most exclusive clubs ever– the extremely small collection (three) of people who have been to the Moon twice.  And as if that weren’t enough, he holds the lunar land speed record (11.2 mph).

Eugene Cernan (image credit: NASA)
Eugene Cernan (image credit: NASA)

 1879 – Birth of Albert Einstein in Württemburg. Where do you start? Probably by saying “Google him”. Einstein’s main claims to fame are, of course, Special Relativity (1905), a theory describing the relationship between space and time, and General Relativity (1915), which concerns gravitation. He also, in 1916, predicted gravitational waves, almost exactly 100 years before they were discovered

1885  –  Asteroid 247 Eukrate discovered by Robert Luther..

1904  –  Asteroid 524 Fidelio discovered by Max Wolf.

March 09 – Yuri Gagarin

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on March 9th, 1934, in the village of Klushino, near Ghatsk, in the western USSR. Ghatsk is a small town of about 30,000 people, and is now, unsurprisingly, called Gagarin. The family home is now a museum to the first human in space (the feat was achieved on April 12, 1961, and was Gagarin’s only spaceflight). His parents, incidentally, both worked on a collective farm. It just doesn’t get any more Soviet than that, does it?

Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin was a heavily decorated guy, achieving the rare honour of Hero of the Soviet Union, which he shares with the likes of Lenin, Leonid Brezhnev, and (slightly more unusually) President Nasser of Egypt. Surely though, his most prized possession must have been the Gold Medal of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS).

1882  –  Main belt asteroid 223 Rosa discovered by Johann Palisa.  Now then, here’s something we don’t see every day: 223 Rosa is classified as both a C-type and a P-type asteroid, meaning it probably contains carbonaceous material (C) and water ice (P).  The “P” in P-type stands for Pseudo-M, as they belong to a group that has many of the same properties as M-type asteroids, but a lower albedo, which stopped them slotting into the M-type bracket.  Rosa was the thirty-second of Palisa’s 122 asteroid discoveries.  The thinking behind the name remains a mystery.

1974  –  British satellite Miranda launched to test three-axis gyro systems.