May 16 – Discovery of Asteroid 87 Sylvia

Asteroid 87 Sylvia was discovered on May 16th 1866 by N R Pogson, author of the Madras Catalogue of stars, at Madras Observatory.

Sylvia is a large asteroid in the Cybele group of bodies in the outer core of the main belt.  She is an x-type asteroid, with “x” in this case doing its usual job of signifying the uncertainty surrounding their composition.

Sylvia is named after Rhea Silvia, descendant of Aeneas, daughter of Numitor, and, in an unusual career move for a Vestal Virgin, mother of Romulus and Remus, the supposed founders of Rome who as babies were set adrift on the river Tiber by a servant who had been ordered to kill them, later to be found and suckled by a wolf who had lost her cubs.

Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena, Spain.
Rhea Silvia, torso from the amphitheatre at Cartagena, Spain.

Sylvia has two satellites. They were given the fairly obvious names of Romulus (discovered in 2001) and Remus (2004).

1888  –  Discovery of asteroid 278 Paulina by Johann Palisa. Nobody is quite sure who Paulina, Paul or Paula was.

2011 saw the launch of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 02 (AMS-02) via shuttle Endeavour, to be mounted onboard the International Space Station.  AMS-02′s raison d’etre is to measure cosmic rays as part of the ongoing search for dark matter.  It seems to be working well so far, making 1,000 recordings a second, and passing the 90 billion mark in 2016.

AMS-02 Patch (NASA/JSC).

If particle physics is your thing, the AMS-02 website is probably where you’ll want to go next.

Last updated: May 2019.


May 14 – Discovery of Asteroid196 Philomela

Asteroid 196 Philomela was discovered by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters at Hamilton College, Clinton (New York) on May 14th 1879.  It is a large, bright, S-type (stony) main belt asteroid, and studies of light curve data have decided it is smooth and asymmetrically shaped.

Philomela and Procne showing Itys'head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses
Philomela and Procne showing Itys’ head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Philomela was the daughter of King Pandium I of Athens, and had a sister called Procne.  Procne’s husband, Tereus, raped Philomela, and according to Ovid, cut out her tongue.  To get her revenge Philomela wove a tapestry (she couldn’t just write it down?) telling her story, and sent it to her sister.  Procne took the news badly, killing her son by Tereus, boiling him, and serving him to her husband.

Tereus failed to see the funny side, and pursued the sisters with the aim of killing them.  But they prayed to the gods for assistance, and were transformed into birds (Procne a swallow, and Philomela a nightingale).

1917 –  Discovery of main belt asteroid 871 Amneris (a character in the opera Aida) by Max Wolf at the Heidelberg Observatory.  Amneris is now known to have its own small family of 20 or so asteroids.

1973   –   Unmanned launch of Skylab, the first orbiting space station of the United States.  Although the final manned mission left the station in 1974, Skylab remained potentially operational, and the plan was to move it into a higher orbit using the space shuttle.  Unfortunately the development of the shuttle took longer than planned, so NASA were forced to allow Skylab to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

2009   –   Launch of PLANCK by ESA and the Herschel Space Observatory (a joint mission by NASA and ESA). PLANCK was equipped with instruments to detect at infrared and microwave, while Herschel was the largest infrared telescope ever launched, with a primary mirror measuring 11 feet in diameter. Herschel’s mission ended on 29th April 2013, when the liquid helium needed to cool it’s instruments ran out. PLANCK lasted a little longer, being told to shut down on 23rd October the same year.

At time of writing (May 2019, the ESA/PLANCK website was still up and running.

Last updated: May, 2019.