December 07 – Discovery of Asteroid 423 Diotima (1898)

Asteroid 423 Diotima was discovered from Nice by Auguste Charlois on December 7th, 1898. It’s in the main belt, is a C-type, is fairly large (approximately 170 by 140 km) and rotates once about its axis every 4.8-ish hours.

Diotima has a semi-major axis of a little over 3 AU.  Semi-major axis sounds worse than it is. It’s just the longest radius of of an elliptical orbit.

Diotima of Mantinea
Diotima of Mantinea

Diotima was named, by the Heidelberg Astronomisches Rechen-Institut, or Astronomical Calculation Unit, after one of Socrates’ teachers, Diotima of Mantinea, a woman whose existence remains uncertain; the jury is still out on whether or not she was simply a creation of Plato. It is from the teachings of Diotima that we get the concept of platonic love. I can’t help thinking there’s a clue to her existence (or lack of it) in that name. Surely it would have been diotimic love?

December 04 – Launch of Gemini VII (1965)

We have slightly odd numbering here. Gemini 7 (VII) was launched on December 4th, 1965, after Gemini 5, but before Gemini 6A. Gemini 6 was obviously originally planned to go between 5 and 7, but had to be cancelled and rescheduled with an “A”.

The crew of gemini VII (Lovell, left, and Borman)
The crew of Gemini VII (Lovell, left, and Borman)

The plan for Gemini 7 was to observe the effects of prolonged spaceflight on astronauts. The two-man crew, Frank Borman and James Lovell, circled the globe 206 times during their two week confinement. After 11 days they were joined briefly by Walter Schirra aboard Gemini 6A, and practiced rendezvousing (at closest approach during their extra-atmospheric ballet they were just one foot apart).

Gemini, of course, is the constellation that lies between Cancer and Taurus in the sky (and therefore in the zodiac) and is historically associated with the twin brothers Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux if you prefer the later Roman name). I prefer Polydeuces myself, because the translation is “much sweet wine”, which you just don’t get with “Pollux”. Castor, as any rodentologist will tell you, is Greek for “beaver”.

The Diskouri, in the Museum of Modern Art (image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)
The Diskouri, in the Museum of Modern Art (image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

The twins now immortalized in the heavens were collectively known to the Greeks as the Diskouri, or “sons of Zeus” (the noun Gemini is from Roman mythology). They also had twin half-sisters, even more famous than themselves: Helen (of Troy) and Clytemnestra.

November 27 – Discovery of Asteroid 82 Alkmene (1864)

Asteroid 82 Alkmene was discovered by the prolific German asteroid hunter Robert Luther on November 27th 1864. It’s a medium-sized S-type main belt asteroid, orbiting the Sun every four and a half years.

The Labour of Alcmena (Virgil Solis)
The Labour of Alcmena (Virgil Solis)

Alkmene was named, at Luther’s request, by Karl von Littrow (director of the Vienna Observatory), Edmund Weiss (who would also become director of the Vienna Observatory, in 1878) and Theodor von Oppolzer (a professor at Vienna University), after the mother of Herakles. Zeus was the father, but didn’t go to any of the great lengths he normally employed in order to have his way with her. He simply disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon, which was well below his normal level of inventiveness. But then again he’d already added a certain amount of deviation by going after her in the first place, as she was his great-granddaughter.

Today’s picture is a woodcut from a collection of 183 by the German artist Virgil Solis for a 1581 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

2011 Discovery of the long period comet 2011 W3 Lovejoy by Terry Lovejoy, an australian amateur astronomer, responsible for the discovery of a further 4 comets..

November 25 – Discovery of Asteroid 128 Nemesis (1872)

Asteroid 128 Nemesis was discovered on November 25th 1872 by J C Watson. It’s a C-type asteroid, estimated to be about 188km in diameter, and is one of the slower rotators, with a day of 39 hours. 128 Nemesis is the largest member of the Nemesis (or nemesian) family of asteroids, of which at least 129 have been identified by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Nemesis (Louvre, Paris)
Nemesis (Louvre, Paris)

Nemesis, as the name might have already suggested to you, was the Greek goddess of retribution. She is generally thought to have been the mother of Helen of Troy and her twin sister Clytemnestra, as well as the more astronomically famous twins Castor and Pollydeuces (a.k.a. Pollux). Obviously, having two sets of twins, while unusual, was nowhere near bizarre enough for the Greeks, so the story goes that Nemesis, attempting to avoid Zeus (as usual) took the form of a goose. Zeus then turned into a swan, resulting of course in an egg from which her children are born.

What were those guys on?

November 17 – Discovery of Asteroid 107 Camilla (1868)

Today’s asteroid, 107 Camilla, was discovered on November 17th 1868 by Norman Robert Pogson.  It is just about within the main belt, being a member of the Cybele Group, a collection of rocks lying on the outer edge of the belt, beyond the 2:1 Kirkwood Gap, and thought to be the result of the break up of a much larger object sometime long ago.  Camilla herself is one of the larger asteroids, with a diameter of 209km putting her right up among the big guns of the asteroid belt.

Camilla is so-called after a queen of the same name from Roman mythology, suckled by a mare (in accordance with the obligatory bizarre upbringings of many mythological characters), and later to become an ally of the Rutuli, opponents of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid.  She is one of the many historical and mythological characters encountered by Dante Alighieri in “Limbo”, the first circle of Hell, in his Inferno.

King Mètabo feeds his daughter Camilla with the milk of a mare (from a fresco by Niccolò dell’Abate, Bologna).

Camilla (we’re back with the asteroid now) has two small satellite.  The first to be discovered is of about 6 miles across (10 to 11 km), spotted in 2001 by astronomers at Towson University in Maryland, using images from the Hubble Space Telescope.  At the time of writing this satellite is designated S/2001 (107) 1 but has no official name.  I’m voting for Charles.

Camilla (and Charles)
Camilla (and Charles?)

The second satellite, S/2016 (107) 1, is even smaller, probably just 3.5km across.  It was discovered by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, in 2016.


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 11 – Discovery of Asteroid 179 Klytaemnestra (1877).

Today in 1877, Canadian-American astronomer James Craig Watson discovered his final asteroid, the large main belt member 179 Klytaemnestra. This stony S-type asteroid is about 75 km across, and has a light curve giving it a rotation period of 11.13 hours, varying in by magnitude by 0.55.

A light curve is pretty much exactly what you might think. It’s a curve showing variations in brightness of the target object. Variations in the light intensity recorded can be used to infer how long it is taking the asteroid to rotate. The same method can be used to predict the shape of the asteroid.

The Murder of Agamemnon, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. Louvre, Paris.
The Murder of Agamemnon, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. Louvre, Paris.

As was fairly normal in the early days of asteroid naming, this one is a mythological Greek reference. The Spartan princess Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and became infamous by killing both her husband and the Trojan princess Cassandra, whom he had chosen as a reward for his part in the victory over Troy.

1875 I love this name. Vesto Melvin Slipher, the American astronomer responsible for providing the first proof of universal expansion, was born today in Mulberry, Indianna. Slipper lived to the grand old age of 93, and spent his entire working life at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. His brother, Earl, was also an astronomer, specialising in the study of Mars.

I have no idea where his parents got the name Vesto from, but if you conjugate the Italian verb vestirsi (to wear or get dressed) you come across it pretty quickly (1st person present indicative – I dress).

1982Launch of the fifth NASA shuttle mission, STS-5, using shuttle Columbia. The four-man crew was the first to undertake an “operational” shuttle mission, by deploying two commercial satellites.

November 08 – Asteroid 27 Euterpe

The bright 27 Euterpe is a large main belt asteroid, discovered by John Russell Hind on November 8th 1853.  At opposition Euterpe can get to magnitude 8.3, making it one of the brightest asteroids.

Euterpe was Hind’s penultimate asteroid.  He had discovered four the year before, so probably thought he was headed for the record books.  But they dried up pretty quickly, with just this one in 1853, and one last find in 1854 (30 Urania).  Hind has a crater on the Moon named in his honour, lying next to the crater Halley, the namesake of which is celebrating (quietly, I assume) his 361st birthday today.

Euterpe was named after the muse of music,  the name deriving from the Greek meaning something approximating to “delight” or “rejoicing”.

Euterpe (Godefroid Guffens)
Euterpe (Godefroid Guffens)

Today’s space-filler is by the Belgian artist Godefroid Guffens, a pupil of Nicaise de Keyser, born in Hasselt, but working mostly in Antwerp.

1656  –  Birth of Edmund Halley.

1875  –  Discovery of asteroid 155 Scylla.

1956  –  Comet Arend-Roland discovered.

1958  –  Launch of Pioneer 2 in the direction of the Moon. An altitude of almost 1,000 miles was achieved, but unfortunately the Moon is another 237,000 miles further up. Actually, that flippant remark is only partly true. The average distance to the Moon is about 238,000 miles, but the actual distance varies from 225,000 miles at perigee (closest approach to Earth) to 252,000 miles at apogee (furthest distance from Earth).


November 06 – Asteroid 178 Belisana

This is going to be a short one.  Today’s discovery, 178 Belisana, is a main belt asteroid, spotted by our old friend Johann Palisa on November 6th, 1877.  It is an S-type, stony asteroid, named after the Celtic goddess of almost the same name, Belisama.


The goddess Belisama was popular in Gaul, and has been associated with Minerva.  It is also possible, but not certain, that she was goddesss of one of my local rivers, the Ribble.


November 05 – Discovery of Asteroid 126 Velleda (1872)

November 5th was a big day for prolific French asteroid hunters, the brothers Henry (Paul and Prosper), who clocked up three between them.
First today is 126 Velleda, a largish main belt asteroid discovered this day in 1872. In Germanic history Veleda was a prophetess of the Bructeri, a tribe of North Rhine-Westphalia. She correctly prophesied that her people would be successful in battle against the Romans, in what is now known as the Batavian revolt. Had they been more inquisitive though,  her friends might have thought to ask her for how long, because it didn’t take the Romans too much time to muster nine legions to crush the uprising.  Veleda was captured in AD 77.

Velleda (Charles Voillemot).A probably not entirely accurate representation
Velleda (Charles Voillemot). A probably not entirely accurate representation

Asteroid 127 Johanna, 116 km wide, discovered by the brothers on the same day, and possibly named after Joan of Arc, is notable for its unusual classification.  It is a “CX” type, as it displays the properties of both a C-type and an X-type.

Today’s final asteroid is 177 Irma, a large dark one, credited to Paul Henry, and discovered exactly five years after the first two, on November 5th, 1877.

Today in 1964 saw the launch of Mariner 3 from Cape Canaveral. The plan was for a flyby of Mars, but the cover on its solar panels failed to open,  and it is now defunct, and orbiting the Sun.

Mariner 3 (image credit: NASA).
Mariner 3 (image credit: NASA).

Mariner 4, launched three weeks later, had more success, and took the first ever close-up photographs of Mars.