December 19 – Asteroid 397 Vienna

Asteroid 397 Vienna was discovered by Auguste Charlois on December 19th, 1894. It is an S-type main belt asteroid of about 43 km diameter. There are no prizes for guessing the origin of the name.

In the 1960’s, the only way to spy from above on your decadent imperialist western enemies was to send collections of cameras into orbit, shoot a few rolls of film, bring the whole thing back down, and hope you could make it land in a suitable place for retrieval.
Kosmos 24 (also known officially, but less publically, as Zenit 2, Number 15) was one such Soviet reconnaissance satellite, launched on December 19th, 1963, and recovered by the military nine days later. The launch took place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome via a Vostok 2 rocket, and as far as anyone is aware it was a success.

Kosmos 24

There were over 500 Zenit 2 launches, mostly carrying four cameras, with each camera capable of shooting 1500 frames. And what I didn’t know until very recently was that the Zenit camera I owned in the late 1970’s was made by the same company who manufactured the equipment for the Kosmos satellites. I Wish I’d kept it.

2013 – Launch of the Gaia Space Observatory.


December 01 – Asteroid 157 Dejanira

At 10km wide, and with an absolute magnitude of +10.6 and a rotation period of 15.82 hours, 157 Dejanira is a fairly ordinary main belt asteroid discovered by Alphonse Borelly on December 1st 1875. It has since become the head of a family of similarly located asteroids.

Dejanira is named for the mythological Greek princess Deianira, daughter of the king of Calydon.  Supposedly a great beauty, she caught the eye of both the hero Herakles and the deity Achelous, god of the river Acheloos. Herakles won, of course, and took Deianira as his wife. This turned out to be one of his less inspired decisions, as is explained in The Women of Trachis by Sophocles. Early in their relationship,  Herakles had saved Deianira from being carried off by a centaur called Nessus, by killing him with an arrow. Somehow the dying Nessus persuaded Deianira that his blood was a love potion.  Deianira kept some, and when she later found out that Herakles was about to embark on an amorous adventure with a captive princess,  she dyed a robe with it and sent it to her husband as a gift, forgetting that his own arrows were dipped in the blood of a hydra, and had therefore made Nessus’ blood a powerful poison.

Black Figure Hydria (water carrier) showing Heracles, Deianira and Nessus (Louvre, Paris).

Black Figure Hydria (water carrier) showing Heracles, Deianira and Nessus (Louvre, Paris).

I’d like to say here that “hilarity ensues and they all lived happily ever after”, but obviously it didn’t, and they don’t.  Read The Women of Trachis to depress yourself further.

1894 ~ Discovery of main belt asteroid 396 Aeolia (named after an area of Asia Minor) by Auguste Charlois.

1989 ~ I think I need to look up the Russian for International Astrophysical Observatory , because the acronym is GRANAT, and I can’t get past the “G”. Anyhoo, it was launched on December 1st 1989 by the Soviet Union, in collaboration with Bulgaria, France and Denmark. Able to observe at wavelengths From X- to gamma ray, Granat was operational for nine years, and discovered twenty new X-ray sources. Granat was similar in design to the older Astron observatory, which had itself been based around the Venera design.

Granat, perched on a Proton launch vehicle, shortly before liftoff. (Image: NASA)

Granat, perched on a Proton launch vehicle, shortly before liftoff. (Image: NASA)


November 03 – Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2 was launched by the USSR on November 3rd, 1957, and was the first spaceflight to carry a living creature (assuming we ignore anything microscopic that might have hitched a lift on Sputnik 1). The creature in question was a dog, originally called Kudryavka, but renamed Laika (“Barker”) for some reason.

Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2 was considerably larger than its predecessor, being a conical design of around 13 feet high and 6 foot 7 inches diameter at the base, weighing half a tonne. A modified R-7 ICBM was used as the launch vehicle.
The plan was to keep Laika alive for as long as possible to study her vital signs, but a problem with the thermal insulation system (of which the flight engineers were aware, but had no time to fix) the cabin temperature passed 40C (100F) after only a few hours, and it is likely she died after only two or three of Sputnik 2’s 103 minute orbits (the Soviets, of course, claimed she had survived for a week). Her remains were cremated on April 14, 1958, when her hi-tech coffin burned up on re-entry.

We also have two asteroids today, 262 Valda and 263 Dresda, both discovered in Vienna by Johann Palisa on November 3rd 1886.  There’s very little of great interest to say about either of them, except to note that Dresda is a member of the Koronian family of asteroids, named after 158 Koronis, all of which travel in a group, and are thought to be the result of a collision between two large bodies several million years ago.

Dresda, as you might already have guessed, was named after the German city of Dresden.  It was so named at the request of a Baron Engelhardt, who owned a private observatory in the city.

But Valda is more mysterious.  It’s a German name, meaning “renowned ruler”, but it’s proving tricky to find any Valda’s who were popular at the time, or related to the discoverer.  It could, of course, have been named after the commune of Valda in northern Italy, but as the population of this minuscule place in the 1880’s would have been well under a thousand, this is unlikely.  The name was the idea of Bettina von Rothschild who, you may recall, had already been immortalized as 250 Bettina by Palisa the previous year.  Unfortunately I’ve checked up on her parents, siblings and children, and can’t find a Valda anywhere (grandchildren don’t need to be checked, as Bettina was only 34 when she died).

Perhaps the Rothschilds took their holidays in northern Italy.  How on Earth do I find that out?

1960     Launch of Explorer 8 by NASA, via a Juno II launcher, into an elliptical orbit. It had a payload of six experiments to study charged particles (and micrometeorites) in the ionosphere, which it did until the battery failed in December 1960.


November 01 – Asteroid 151 Abundantia

Asteroid 151 Abundantia was discovered on November 1st 1875 by Johann Palissa, at Pula (Croatia).  It’s a stony main belt asteroid, about 45 km across, with a rotational period of approximately 19.7 hours.

Abundantia and her horn (Rubens)

Abundantia and her horn (Rubens)

The name Abundantia was chosen by Edmund Weiss, and refers to the Roman goddess of abundance and prosperity.  As can be seen from the picture, she was one of several deities to be associated with the cornucopia.

1919      Birth of Hermann Bondi, developer of the steady state theory with Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold.  Bondi was born in Austria, but became a British citizen in 1946.  Why he would want to become a citizen of a country that had interred him as an enemy alien during World War II we shall probably never know, but it was a good move, as he went on to bacome a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) and master of Churchill College, Cambridge.

1962      Launch of Mars 1 (also known as Sputnik 23) by the USSR. Communication was lost on March 21st 1963, when the probe was just over 66 million miles from Earth.  It is now in orbit around the Sun.

October 27 – Kosmos 186 / TopSat

Kosmos 186 was launched today in 1967.  It was followed three days later by Kosmos 188, and together they performed the first ever fully automated docking by two spacecraft.


For the younger readers among you, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the old East Germany).

And now it’s time for another of those rare events, a British satellite launch. This one was in 2005.

TopSat (Tactical Operational Satellite) is a small satellite, only about 80cm across, designed to show that size isn’t necessarily important when it comes to satellites.  It carries an ingeneously designed camera capable of much higher resolution images than would normally be possible from anything capable of being held in such a small area (they do it with mirrors).

TopSat was conceived, designed and built in Britain. Such a shame they had to launch it from Russia, on a Russian rocket. The British spaceflight industry may be rightly proud of their ability to do more with less, but it’s not much use if EasyJet are able to get higher off the ground without foreign help.

October 24 – Ariel and Umbriel

We have a double-header today.  Two moons of Uranus, Ariel and Umbriel, were discovered on October 24th 1851 by Bolton-born William Lassell, brewer and keen amateur astronomer, who was in the fortunate position of being able to use his not inconsiderable wealth to fund the construction of impressive telescopes.

Let’s take a quick look at Ariel first, a reasonably large moon of just over 579 km radius, orbiting its parent at a distance of about 190,000 km.  It travels at a fantastic pace, completing an orbit of the vast planet below it in two and a half Earth days.

Ariel viewed from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

Ariel viewed from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

Of all the moons of Uranus, the surface of Ariel appears to be the youngest, evidenced by the lack of older, larger impact craters, and the presence of recent geologic activity.  It is also the brightest of the large Uranian moons, and is tidally locked (keeps the same face to the planet at all times).  Ariel has only been visited up close and personal by one mission, Voyager 2, and as far as I know there are no plans to make a return journey just yet.

If you’ discover a moon of Uranus you have two choices from which to choose a suitable name: Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, or the plays of William Shakespeare.  At the sugestion of Lassell, Ariel was chosen by Sir John Herschel, son of Sir William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus.  It’s a good choice, as it falls into both categories.

Now we move outwards slightly to Umbriel, which gets its name from that of a sprite in Pope’s narrative poem.  It too was chosen by John Herschel.

View of Umbriel from Voyager 2, 1986 (image credit: NASA)

View of Umbriel from Voyager 2, 1986 (image credit: NASA)

Umbriel is the third farthest major moon from Uranus (Ariel is the second), and is the darkest of the major Uranian satellites.  We don’t yet know why Umbriel is so much darker than similarly sized bodies in orbit around Uranus, but I’m sure somebody’s working on it somewhere.  With a radius of 584 km, it is only slightly larger than Ariel, and, like it’s neighbour, it’s no slouch, travelling at the impressive rate of 16,800 km/hour, meaning a year on Umbriel takes about four and a half Earth days.

For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs withdrew
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,
Umbriel, a dusky, melancholy sprite,
As ever sully’d the fair face of light,
Down to the central earth, his proper scene,  
Repair’d to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.

(The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope, 1714)

1601   –   Death of the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, whose use of the title De Nova Stella to announce the supernova of 1572 led to the word nova being applied to all such phenomena.

1890   –   First meeting of the British Astronomical Association at the Hall of the Society of Arts in London. Unlike the already established Royal Astronomical Society, the BAA was open to female members, and even allowed them onto its council. One can only speculate of course, but I assume the RAS had somehow decided that night vision was improved by ownership of testicles.

1964   –   Launch of Kosmos 49 (DS-MG 2) to test orientation systems and study the magnetosphere.  The launch was from the Kapustin Yar site near Volgograd (previously known as Stalingrad). The mission was a short one, and the satellite’s orbit decayed on August21st the year after launch.

2004   –   Discovery of Saturn’s extremely tiny moon, Polydeuces by the Cassini Imaging Science team.

October 20 – 148780 Altjira

As you can probably tell from the large number in front of its name, 148780 Altjira was discovered a considerable time later than most of the other small and medium-sized solar system bodies in these pages (October 20th, 2001), but it gets a mention for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, Altjira is a binary system of almost equally sized partners, comprising a primary object of something approaching 180 to 200 km diameter, and a secondary only a little less wide (probably about 150km) discovered six years later.  Between them they comprise a classical Kuiper Belt object (KBO) also known as a cubewano, a name derived from the first such object discovered, (15760) 1992 QB1.  

Arrernte performing a welcoming dance for strangers, Alice Springs, 1901.

Arrernte performing a welcoming dance for strangers, Alice Springs, 1901.

The second reason I thought this particular KBO deserved a mention was because I believe it’s the only time I’ll be referring to Aboriginal Australian mythology.  Altjira is a sky god of the Aranda (or Arrernte) people of the Northern Territory, and is is credited with creating the Earth during the Dreamtime.

Altjira was discovered using the Deep Ecliptic Survey, a very successful project to find KBOs, which, between 1998 and 2005, produced the first Neptune Trojan and the first binary trans-Neptunian object (TNO), as well as dozens of centaurs and a couple of hundred classical KBOs.

1962  –  Launch of Kosmos 11 (aka DS-A1 No.1) by the Soviet Union, using a Vostok 2 rocket, on October 20th, 1962, from the Mayak Launch Complex. The purpose of the “DS” missions was to test various hardware, primarily concerned with the development of anti-ballistic missile defence systems. The “DS” in the name stands for Dnepropetrovsk Sputnik. Dnipropetrovsk is the third largest city in Ukraine. Kosmos 11 managed to stay in orbit until May 18th, 1963.


October 18 – Nuwa and Chiron

James Craig Watson was responsible for today’s first entry.  150 Nuwa was first spotted by him on October 18th, 1875, and is a large, dark, C-type, main belt asteroid in the Hecuba group.

Nuwa is about 146 km across, and takes a little more than 5 years to orbit the Sun.  It is named after the Chinese goddess Nüwa, thought to be creator of mankind.

Nüwa and Fu Xi (Han Dynasty mural).

Nüwa and Fu Xi (Han Dynasty mural).

Our second rock today is 2060 Chiron, a 233 km wide cross between an asteroid and a comet, discovered on this day in 1977 by Charles T Kowal, and named after a centaur (half man, half horse) from Greek mythology.  This particular centaur was known as the wisest of his race, and tutored the young Achilles.

The Education of Achilles (James Barry, 1772)

The Education of Achilles (James Barry, 1772)

Chiron was the first object to be discovered orbiting between Saturn and Uranus.  Objects in this class are now known as centaurs.

1963  –  Launch of Kosmos 20.

October 18th, 1989 saw the launch of the Galileo spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter. It was carried out of Earth’s atmosphere by the shuttle Atlantis (mission STS-34). Unusually for a craft headed to Jupiter, Galileo was first pointed in the direction of Venus. This was because the fastest way to get the probe to its target was to use the “gravitational assist” method of acceleration. After Venus, Galileo came back past Earth for a speed boost, before a rendezvous with asteroid 951 Gaspra (October 29th, 1991).

Gaspra from the Galileo probe (image: NASA)

Gaspra from the Galileo probe (image: NASA)

It was then able to slingshot past Earth a second time, adding more than 3 km/second to its speed, before a second asteroid encounter, this time with 243 Ida on August 28th, 1993. Jupiter was reached on December 7th, 1995, whereupon Galileo became the first spacecraft to park in orbit around the gas giant.

White Ovals in the Jovian Atmosphere imaged by Galileo. (Image: NASA)

White Ovals in the Jovian Atmosphere imaged by Galileo. (Image: NASA)

Galileo spent eight years in the Jovian system, and was deliberately destroyed on September 21st, 2003 by dropping it into Jupiter’s atmosphere.


October 17 – Asteroid 207 Hedda

Medium-sized (approx 60km diameter) C-type, main belt asteroid 207 Hedda was discovered on October 17th 1879 by Johann Palisa, and was his 20th discovery.

It was named after the wife of the German astronomer Friedrich August Theodor Winnecke, whose name was Hedwig.  The change to the nordic version of her name, Hedda, was suggested by J Gylden at the meeting of the Astronomische Gesellschaft in September 1881.

Friedrich August Theodor Winnecke

Friedrich August Theodor Winnecke

Hedwig Winnecke (née Dell) was a niece of the Russian astronomer Otto Struve, who we will almost certainly meet again.  Struve was director of the observatory at Pulkovo in Russia in the 1850s and persuaded August Winnecke to take up a post there.  That, presumably, was how he met his future wife.

1962  –  Kosmos 10 (aka Zenit-2 #5) was launched, using a Vostok 2 rocket, on October 17th, 1962, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, into a low-Earth orbit with a perigee of about 178 kilometres (111 miles). It was primarily a reconnaissance mission, and was landed by parachute four days after launch, but, as it was derived from the manned Vostok launch vehicle, it was also used to research radiation as part of the Soviet Union’s manned space programme.

2002  –  Launch of the International Gamma Ray Physics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) by the European Space Agency. 2002 was quite a while ago in spacecraft life-spans, but INTEGRAL is still going strong, and has recently been used, in conjunction with the Fermi and Swift space observatories, to observe gamma ray jets near a supermassive black hole using gravitational microlensing.

Artist's Impression of INTEGRAL (image: ESA–Medialab)

Artist’s Impression of INTEGRAL (image: ESA–Medialab)

Also today we have a small batch of main belt asteroids, all discovered in 193p by Karl Reinmuth. They are 1172 Äneas, 1173 Archiestown, 1174 Marmara, and 1175 Margo.


October 12 – Voskhod 1

Voskhod 1, all five tonnes of it, the first manned spaceflight to carry a crew of more than one, was launched by the USSR from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 12th 1964 carrying cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov, Boris Yegorov and Konstantin Feokistov into an orbit varying between 111 and 209 miles for a rather short mission of just over a day.

An interesting “first” for Voskhod 1 was that it was the first spaceflight to omit spacesuits from the luggage list.  Voskhod (the name is Russian for “sunrise”) was apparently built for two cosmonauts, but the powers that be decided it would be more impressive to send three up, so something had to be left behind to keep the baggage allowance under the limit.  I presume they decided that if the crew did ever need to leave the craft in a hurry at 200 miles above the Earth, not being able to breathe might only be the first of a whole host of problems, so the spacesuits were left behind.

Spacesuits were grudgingly allowed on the follow-up flight, Voskhod 2, but only because part of the mission involved opening the door.

Mission patch for Voskhod 1

Mission patch for Voskhod 1

Despite only being in space for 24 hours, the crew of Voskhod 1 managed to miss one of the most significant political events of the decade.  During the flight, Nikita Krushchev was removed from power (sorry: “retired due to age and ill health”) to be replaced by the youthful and ever jovial Leonid Brezhnev.

Very Quick Language Lesson:  today’s picture contains the letters CCCP, about which the main thing to say is that as it’s in Cyrillic script, it’s not pronounced CCCP but SSSR, and stands for Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik.

2013  –  Discovery of NEO (Near-Earth Object) 2013 TV135, which had passed close by the planet a little under three weeks previously.  At the time of discovery, 2013 TV135 was rated “1” on the Torino Scale (meaning the chance of a collision was unlikely).  It has since been downgraded even further.