January 16 – Soyuz 4 and 5 Get Close (1969)

1969 – The first ever docking between two manned spacecraft, Soyuz 4 and 5, took place on January 16th in this year. This was the first occasion on which crew were transferred from one ship to another. Back then though, it wasn’t as simple as floating through a hatch like they do on the International Space Station. Alexei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov had to go outside and clamber along from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4 if they wanted a lift home.

Hungarian 3 Forint Stamp Showing the Historic Docking.
Hungarian 3 Forint Stamp Showing the Historic Docking.

January 13 – Discovery of Asteroid 141 Lumen (1876)

1876 – Discovery of C-type main belt asteroid 141 Lumen by Paul-Pierre Henry, or possibly his brother Prosper. This one was credited to Paul-Pierre, but in keeping with their credit sharing philosophy, the brothers never revealed which one of them actually made the find. Even while they were alive, it was impossible for astronomical journals to attach one brother to a specific discovery with any level of accuracy greater than 50%, so we have no chance now. As with several other of the asteroid discoveries of the Henry brothers, it borrows its name from a book by Camille Flammarion, Lumen: Récits de l’infini.

Cover of
Cover of “Lumen: Récits de l’infini”

You can download Lumen for free these days if you like, but its a bit weird.

141 Lumen is about 130km wide, and shares orbital characteristics with the Eunomia family of asteroids, but is defined as an “interloper”, because of its composition (Lumen is carbonaceous, whereas Eunomians are stony).

January 8 – Launch of Luna 21 (1973)

January 8th, 1973 saw the launch of Luna 21 from Baikonur, onboard a Proton 8K82K rocket, to land the Lunokhod 2 rover on the Moon a week later, on January 15th.  The mission was successful, with a landing in the Le Monnier crater, between the Mare Serenitatis and the Taurus mountains.

Lunokhod Rover
Lunokhod Rover.  What do you think: Heath Robinson or Wallace and Grommit?

Lunokhod 2 took some 80,000 photographs, and conducted several soil surveys.  It kept going until May 1973, when dust on its solar panels and radiators caused a terminal heating issue. TAS announced the end of the mission on June 3rd.


December 22 – Discovery of Asteroid 323 Brucia (1891)

Thirty-three kilometre wide asteroid 323 Brucia was the first to be discovered by the new fangled process known as astrophotography.

It was discovered by Max Wolf, and named in honour of Mrs Catherine Wolfe Bruce, who had donated the instrument on which it was captured, the 16 inch double astrograph at Heidelberg.

The Bruce Astrograph, Heidelberg

Mrs Bruce was a generous supporter of astronomy (she also provided instruments for Harvard and Yerkes), and now, as well as an asteroid, has a lunar crater named after her. She established an annual award for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the “Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal”, one of the most prestigious awards in astronomy. Over the years the Bruce Medal has been awarded to the likes of Poincaré, Hubble, Hoyle and Chandrasekhar, and also to a certain Max Wolf, who received the honour in 1930.

I’ve included a picture of the Bruce Medal because photographs of Catherine are hard to come by.  There’s one doing the rounds online, but I’m fairly sure it isn’t her, so I’m not using it.

November 16 – Discovery of Asteroid 22 Kalliope (1852)

M-type main belt asteroid 22 Kalliope was discovered by John Russell Hind on 16th November 1852. It’s a reasonable size  at about 166 km across, is probably composed mostly of metals and silicates, and has a retrograde motion. More interestingly, Kalliope also has a satellite called Linus, discovered by Jean-Luc Margot and Michael E Brown in 2001.

Calliope (detail of a painting by Simon Vouet)
Calliope (detail of a painting by French artist Simon Vouet)

The name Kalliope comes from the Greek muse of epic poetry, Calliope. She was a lover of both Ares, the god of war, and Apollo. To Apollo she bore two sons: Orpheus, a man so musically talented it was said he could charm rocks, and Linus (now you see where I’ve been heading with this) the inventor of melody and rhythm. Both Ovid and Hesiod refer to Calliope as the wisest of all the muses, but as they were both poets this is hardly surprising.

Also today, from 1973, we have the launch of the third (and final) manned Skylab mission, called (confusingly) Skylab 4 (“SL-4“). Being flung upwards, via a Saturn IB launch vehicle, into their first and only spaceflights were commander Gerald P Carr, science pilot Edward G Gibson and pilot William R Pogue. The team spent 83 days docked with the Skylab space station, orbiting the Earth more than 1,000 times.

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.


November 12 – Launch of Discoverer 17 (1960)

The best that can be said about Discoverer 17 (aka Corona 9012) is that it wasn’t a complete failure.  It was launched on November 12th 1960, from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.  Low Earth orbit was attained, and the plan was to shoot a roll of high resolution black and white 70mm film showing how quickly the Soviet Union were developing their long range ballistic missile capability, then return it to Earth aboard the “satellite recovery vehicle” (SRV).  Unfortunately, the mission suffered from premature separation of the SRV, resulting in only a couple of feet of unused film being returned to Earth.  The rest of Discoverer 17 remained in orbit until 29th December, at which point it was burnt up on reentry.

A Discoverer type recovery vehicle (also known as a "bucket"). Image credit: unknown, but from somewhere within the US Government).
A Discoverer type recovery vehicle (also known as a “bucket”). (Image credit: unknown, but from somewhere within the US Government).

There was also a biological research aspect to Discoverer 17 (the cover story), involving a study of the effect on human beings of leaving the atmosphere (at that time no-one had yet got into space).  This was the part of the mission that didn’t fail, as insight was gained on the effect of massive doses of radiation on human tissue.  (And yet they still found volunteers to go up there.)

1862  ⇒  Discovery of asteroid 77 Frigga by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters.  This M-type main belt asteroid is named after the Norse goddess Frigg, wife of Odin.

1879  ⇒  Discovery by Johann Palisa of the F-type asteroid 210 Isabella.  F-types are a sub-division of the carbocaceous “C” group.  They are similar to B-types, but are suspected to lack hydrated minerals.

November 11 – Philae Lands on Comet 67P/C-G

2015Four years years ago today ESA successfully landed (or bounced) their Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, having been launched from the Rosetta spacecraft some hours earlier.

The Philae Lander viewed from Rosetta, a few hours into the flight to Comet 67P. (Image credit: ESA)

Rosetta had been launched from French Guiana in 2004, and a soft landing on the target comet was going to be the highlight of the trip. One of Philae’s thrusters was known to be faulty before separation from Rosetta, but there wasn’t much that could be done about it so they went ahead anyway. Earlier I said that Philae “bounced” onto 67P, which I think needs a little more information. There isn’t much gravity on a comet; so if you bounce, you’ll bounce high. Philae bounced just over half a mile (1 km) before coming down again. It was a whisker away from not coming back down and carrying on into space.

Fortunately, despite landing at a jaunty angle and in an unfavourable location, Philae was able to deploy some of the experiments on board, and was capable of several periods of communication with ground controllers via Rosetta.

November 11 – Discovery of Asteroid 253 Mathilde (1885)

253 Mathilde is a dark main belt asteroid of about 50km wide, discovered on this day in 1885, and named after the wife of Maurice Loewy, the director of the Paris Observatory .

Asteroid 253 Mathilde as seen from the NEAR Shoemaker probe (image credit: NASA)

Mathilde is a rare beast among early asteroid discoveries, as we actually have close-up photographs of her, taken by the passing NASA mission, NEAR Shoemaker, which was on its way to rendezvous with the near-Earth asteroid, 433 Eros. This made Mathilde only the third asteroid to be photographed from close range. Unfortunately the immensely fast speed of the spacecraft, combined with the immensely slow rotation of the asteroid, means we only have pictures of one side.

November 11 – Launch of Gemini XII (1966)

The Gemini XII spacecraft, with help from a Titan-II launch vehicle, lifted off from Cape Canaveral “Launch Complex 19” (LC-19) on the evening of November 11th, 1966.

The two-man crew were Jim Lovell and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.  The name Buzz, apparently, came from the inability of one of his sisters to pronounce the word “brother”. Their mission lasted for 3 days, 22 hours and 34 minutes, allowing the craft to make 59 orbits of the Earth, and giving Aldrin time to pop outside for three EVAs (one a day).

The crew of Gemini XII onboard USS Wasp. (Image credit: NASA)

This was the final manned Gemini flight; the craft can currently be seen at the Alder Planetarium, Chicago.  It was also the final flight to launch from LC-19.