February 15 – The Cat’s Eye Nebula

NGC 6543

Everybody’s seen photographs of this one, but that’s no reason to not show it again: it’s the Cat’s Eye Nebula, otherwise known as NGC 6543, (or “Caldwell 6″ in Patrick Moore’s list of more challenging, non-Messier objects), an expanding cloud of mostly hydrogen and helium, discovered on February 15th 1786 by William Herschel.

Hubble image of the Cat's Eye Nebula (image credit: NASA/ESA)
Hubble image of the Cat’s Eye Nebula (image credit: NASA/ESA)

The nebula is one of the most complex we know of, and was formed around 1,000 years ago when the star (or stars – it may be a binary system) at its centre lost its outer shell. That star, smaller than the Sun but approximately 10,000 times as luminous, is what is responsible for the nebula being lit up like a Christmas tree.

NGC 6543 is around 3,000 light years away and has an observed density of about 5,000 particles per cubic cm.

Launched on February 15th 1973 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Prognoz 3‘s purpose was to study solar flares, and help increase our understanding of how the Sun’s activity affects the Earth’s magnetosphere. Prognoz launches took place at an impressive rate. Getting the entire fleet of 10 satellites off the ground only took 54 weeks.

Asteroid 442 Eichsfeldia was discovered on February 15th, 1899, by Max Wolf and Arnold Schwassman. It’s a C-type main belt asteroid of approximately 65 km diameter.


February 14 – Launch of Luna 20

Launched this day in 1972, Luna 20 was part of the Soviet Union’s unmanned answer to the USA’s manned Moon missions. The main aim was to return samples to Earth, and Luna 20 was the eighth mission to attempt this. It’s mission was to finish the job that Luna 18 was supposed to have completed the previous September. Luna 18, however, had ceased transmitting as soon as it hit the Moon, suggesting a less than perfect landing.

Luna 20 returns home
Luna 20 returns home

Luna 20 was more successful. It landed in the Apollonius highlands, near the Mare Fecunditatis (Sea of Fertility) on February 21st. Holiday snaps were taken with the panoramic camera, and the on-board drill took some soil samples (55 grams). These were launched back to Earth the next day and landed near the copper mining town of Jezkazgan, (now in Kazakhstan, but at the time in the USSR) on Feb 25th.

On this day in 2008, OGLE-2006-BLG-109 Lb was discovered. Yes, I know, it’s not the easiest name to remember, but it is slightly more exciting than it sounds. OGLE-2006-BLG-109 Lb is an extra-solar planet, orbiting the star OGLE-2006-BLG-109 L in Sagittarius (which means that to avoid writing it again I’m just going to use the “b” as the name of the planet). It is believed that the solar system to which “b” belongs has some planets similar in size to Jupiter or Saturn, and possibly some more Earth-sized. “b” was discovered using a technique called gravitational lensing (“OGLE” stands for Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment).

And it wouldn’t be the same without a quick asteroid, so today is the day that Johann Palisa added 304 Olga to his expanding collection. He first spotted it on February 14th 1891. Palisa was 42 at the time, so maybe he’d decided Valentine’s Day was a young man’s game.

February 09 – Apollo 14 Splashdown

We have a collection of shorts today, starting on February 9th 1882 with the possibly C-type, 55km wide, main belt asteroid 222 Lucia, discovered by Johann Palisa.  Lucia is a Themistian asteroid, one of a group sharing orbital properties with 22 Themis. It was named after the daughter of the Arctic explorer and president of the Austrian Geographical Society, Count Johann Nepomuk (Hans) Wilczek 02/12/1837 – 27/01/1922).

On this day in 1905, 558 Carmen was discovered by Max Wolf.  It is an M type main belt asteroid of about 59km diameter.

And now, in the interests of détente, we have one item each from either side of the iron curtain in the same year, 1971, starting with the launch of Cosmos (or Kosmos) 394 by the USSR. Launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the north west of Russia into a low Earth orbit of 522 km (324 miles) Kosmos 394 (or 1971-010A if you prefer) was part of the testing programme for Soviet anti-weapons systems. As (i) it played the role of a target, and (ii) the test was a success, I wouldn’t bother trying to find it I the night sky.

February 9th, 1971 also saw the splashdown of Apollo 14, containing Alan Shepherd, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, in the South Pacific Ocean. Roosa had worked, in a pre-NASA life, as a forestry smokejumper (guys who were parachuted into inaccessible areas to fight wildfires). As a result, he was thought the ideal candidate to take 500 seeds of several species of tree into lunar orbit.

Colonel Stuart A "Stu" Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)
Colonel Stuart A “Stu” Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)

On their return to Earth the seeds were germinated, and the resulting Moon trees were planted across the United States (they were also sent to Italy, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland).

February 03 – Luna 9 lands on the Moon

Feb 3rd is a big day in spaceflight history, because on this day in 1966, the Soviet Union successfully soft-landed  Luna 9 onto the Moon, beating the USA by just over 4 months, and no doubt causing wide grins and double vodkas all round in Moscow.

Luna 9 was launched from the world’s oldest space centre at Tyuratum in Khazakstan.  The centre is still being used by the Russians, although today they have to lease it from the Khazak government (how are the mighty fallen).

Luna 9
Luna 9

The flight to the moon took 79 hours, after which the main spacecraft ejected a small (2 foot diameter) capsule weighing 220 lb (100 kg) which, thanks to the ingenious use of retro rockets, airbags, outrigger engines and a 16 foot long probe which told the engines to cut out when it touched the surface, hit the Moon at a sedate 14 mph, and only needed to bounce a few times before righting itself (it was weighted in such a way as to come to rest the right way up).  The four “petals” covering the top half of the craft then opened up and became stabilizing legs (as in the photo of the still futuristic-looking-after-all-these-years Luna 9, above).   Landing occurred in the Oceanus Procellarum at 9.45 PM Moscow time.

Three panaoramic photographs were transmitted back to Earth over a three day period.   They were picked up by Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, and decoded thanks to a receiver provided by the Daily Express newspaper (see below).

Photograph of the Moon from Luna 9
Photograph of the Moon from Luna 9

2008   ⇒   On this day in 2008 the extrasolar planet Corot-3b was discovered in the constellation of Aquilla by the French-led COnvection ROtation et Transits planétairesmission using the transit method.

1921   ⇒   Happy birthday Ralph Asher Apher, cosmologist, born today in Washington DC.  A big name in the world of big bang nucleosynthesis, which sounds like heavy stuff, and is, as it describes how heavier elements would be created in the primordial universe).


January 31 – Launch of Luna 9 (1966)

Luna 9, launched today in 1966, was the first spacecraft to soft land (in other words, survive landing) on the Moon.

Replica of Luna 9

Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan, a three day journey ended with the use of a “landing bag” to soften the bouncing during the 14 mph impact.

Artist’s impression of Luna 9 on the surface of the Moon

On landing, the four petals visible in the photograph opened up to increase surface stability, and Luna 9 started to take pictures and monitor radiation. Signals from the lander were picked up by the Jodrell Bank radio telescope facility in Cheshire. Opinions divided on whether this was a deliberate act by the USSR to make sure the West knew what they had achieved. Contact with the craft ceased on February 6th.

Twenty-four spacecraft managed to get the name “Luna”. Plenty more were launched, but only those that managed to get as far as the Moon could join the club. It didn’t matter if you crashed into it or sailed straight past, making the distance was enough.

January 31 – Launch of Explorer 1 (1958)

On this day in 1958  Explorer 1 was launched by the USA in response to the USSR launching Sputnik 1 the previous October.  The launch was operated by the Army Ballistic MissileAgency, the organisation for which Werhner von Braun worked after the War.   It carried a cosmic ray detector, provided by Dr James Van Allen (yes, the same one the radiation belts are named after).

Explorer 1 (possibly - they all look alike)
Explorer 1 (possibly – they all look alike)

Explorer 1 only had a brief existence, transmitting until its batteries drained in late May of 1958, and burning up in 1970 when it re-entered the atmosphere.

January 31st 1961 saw two launches,  MR-2 and Samos 2.  Samos 2 was a reconnaissance satellite with a short lifespan and even shorter piece in the history books. The Samos surveillance satellites were a US Air Force programme, able to record video and transmit back while over US airspace.

MR-2, however, made a bigger splash. It carried Ham, a chimpanzee, on a quarter of an hour trip to approximately 130 miles up.  He apparently appeared unfazed by his trip but as, presumably, nobody asked him about his experience, we only have the word of NASA scientists on this one.

Also today we have Apollo 14, the eighth manned Apollo mission, which blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre under the command of Alan Shepard, (the first man to smuggle golf balls to the Moon) en route for their Fra Mauro landing site. I’ll come back to Apollo 14 on Feb 5, the day they landed.

C-type main-belt asteroid 232 Russia was discovered today in 1883 by Johann Palisa, and named after the country.

A Small Piece of Russia (image credit: Me!)
A Small Piece of Russia (image credit: Me!)


January 30 – Launch of Ranger 6 (1964)

Spacecraft Ranger 6 was launched by NASA on January 30th 1964 from Cape Canaveral.  The plan was to transmit high resolution pictures back from the surface of the Moon.  Ranger 6 did indeed make it to the Moon, landing in the Mare Tranquillitatis on Feb 2nd, but was never heard from again (a short-circuit during separation from the launch vehicle had rendered the cameras inoperative).

Ranger 6
Ranger 6

Not wanting to feel left out, the Russians on this day in 1964 managed to  launch two spacecraft at once for the first time.  Elektron 1 and Elektron 2 were hoist skyward atop a Vostok-K rocket to study the Van Allen radiation belt and the Earth’s magnetic field.  The two were launched simultaneously to allow the inner and outer belts to be studied at the same time.   I believe all 350kg (771 lb) of  Elektron 1 is still up there.

Elektron-style satellite (possibly Elektron 1, but you can never be sure).
Elektron-style satellite (possibly Elektron 1, but you can never be sure).


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 16 – Lunokhod 2 Perambulates

Looking for all the world like a space-age pram, Lunokhod 2, the second and last Soviet Moon rover, began exploring our nearby companion on January 16th 1973. It had been landed on the surface the day before by Luna 21, following a four-day journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Lunokhod’s mission was partly to help determine whether Moon-based astronomy was a realistic proposition, and partly to study and take photographs of the surface.

Lunokhod 2 Panorama (image provided by the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology, Vernadsky Institute)
Lunokhod 2 Panorama (image provided by the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology, Vernadsky Institute)

Lunokhod 2 provided many great shots of the surface, such as the one above showing its own tracks in the lunar dust and the Luna 21 lander in the distance, and traveled further on the Moon than any other vehicle. Which brings us to the part I find hardest to believe. Just look at the thing . . .

Lunokhod Rover
Lunokhod Rover

Okay: say what you see. Pram? Mobile bathtub? Prototype Soviet-era family saloon? Project by a class of 6-year olds to build a robotic apple-picking device? The Lunokhod rovers were indeed marvels of 1970’s engineering, mainly because one look at them leaves you absolutely convinced that they should have been smashed to smithereens on impact, (if, that is, they survived being shaken to a small pile of interesting metal shapes on take-off), and certainly should never have been able to explore an alien world. But then if you’ve ever been in a car from the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain (for example a Moskvitch or a Trabby) you’ll probably already know that anything is possible in a worker’s paradise.

One has to admire the Soviet scientists involved in the project for keeping going long after it became obvious that they had designed something William Heath Robinson would have disregarded as ridiculous. If the thing in the photograph above were presented to a news conference by NASA, several journalists would be hospitalized due to excessive laughter.

The Moskvitch 408: another triumph of 1970s Soviet engineering .
The Moskvitch 408: another triumph of 1970s Soviet engineering .

Lunokhod 2 is still on the Moon, of course, and can to this day be detected by laser ranging experiments. It is now in private hands, having been bought at auction in 1993 by astronaut’s son and computer gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott. This made him the only individual on Earth to own a spacecraft situated on a celestial body other than this one. I believe he also owns the Luna 21 lander and an actual Sputnik.

1893 – Main belt asteroid 353 Ruperto-Carola discovered by Max Wolf and named after the University of Heidelberg (full name Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, or in Latin Ruperto Carola).

1903 – Asteroid 500 Selinur discovered by Max Wolf. It was named after a Celtic moon goddess, a character in German author Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s 1879 novel Auch Einer.

2017 – Death of Gene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut (and therefore the last human at timd of writing) to walk on the Moon.

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.