January 08 – Asteroid 379 Huenna

Asteroid 379 Huenna was discovered on the 8th of January 1894 by August Charlois, and is a carbonaceous C-type asteroid, a member of the Themis or Themistian family in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt. In August 2003 it was discovered that Huenna has a small (7 km wide) satellite. It remains unnamed at present, except for its official designation S 2003 (379) 1.

Huenna was named after the island of Ven (or Hven in older Danish), the site of two observatories, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, built by Tycho Brahe, and now a popular tourist destination. Uraniborg was built around 1580 and named after Urania, the muse of astronomy. It was, apparently, the last observatory to be built without a telescope as its main observing instrument. Stjerneborg was built partly underground (I’m sure there was a good reason) and means “star castle”.

The brass mural quadrant at Uraniborg.
The brass mural quadrant at Uraniborg.

The picture above shows the large brass mural “quadrant” attached to the observatory wall at Uraniborg, a three-man instrument used to measure the positions of celestial objects. And if you were looking for Quadrantid meteors last week you will probably remember that their radiant is in the vicinity of the now defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis.
380 Fiducia, another C-type asteroid, was also discovered by Charlois on January 8th 1894. It was named after the Latin word for “confidence”.

1642 – Death of Galileo.

1942 – Birth of Stephen Hawking.

2002 – Discovery of exoplanet Iota Draconis b.

January 02 – Launch of Luna 1 (1959)

Luna 1 was launched by the USSR (Russia) on January 2nd 1959, and was intended to be the first spacecraft to impact the Moon. Unfortunately for the Soviet scientists involved in the program an error back on the ground caused the rocket carrying it to burn for too long, changing the trajectory and sending the payload hurtling past the target at about 6000 km distance. The result was that on January 4th 1959, Luna 1 entered a heliocentric (around the Sun) orbit between Earth and Mars, becoming, I suppose, the first artificial planet. It’s still up there, completing an orbit of the Sun every 450 days, and will probably remain there for a very long time.

Replica of Luna 1 (image: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Replica of Luna 1 (image: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Despite missing the target, Luna 1 did provide some useful information. It was able to measure the solar wind for the first time, and discovered that the Moon has no detectable magnetic field.

Our photograph today is of a replica of Luna 1, so you should probably ignore the huge stalk sticking out of the bottom.

1905 – Discovery of Jupiter’s eighth largest moon, Elara, by Charles Dillon Perrine. For some reason Elara didn’t receive its present name until 1975.

December 19 – Asteroid 397 Vienna

Firstly, a brief 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 publicly, 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 – Discovery of Asteroid 157 Dejanira (1875)

At 19km wide, and with an absolute magnitude of around +11 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 started to punch above its weight by becoming 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.

This story has led astrologers to associate the presence of Dejanira in your chart with abuse, submission, and generally being a victim.

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 – Launch of Sputnik 2 (1957)

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.


October 27 – Launch of Kosmos 186 (1967)

Kosmos 186 was launched on this day in 1967 by the Soviet Union.  It was followed three days later by the identical Kosmos 188, and together they performed the first ever fully automated docking by two spacecraft.  Both were unmanned, which was probably wise at a time when space authorities on both sides of the iron curtain were recovering from tragedies, following the deaths of the three-man crew of Apollo 1 from the USA, and Vladimir Komarov (Soyuz 1) of the USSR.


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

You might have expected the second of this pair to have been called Kosmos 187, but such was the frenzy of launches happening at the time, accelerated by the requirements of Cold War governments, that there had already been another Kosmos sent up in the three days between Kosmos 186 and 188.


October 12 – Launch of Voskhod 1 (1964)

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 a very stylized version of 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.

October 04 – Launch of Luna 3 (1959)

Exactly two years after the international frenzy surrounding their first Sputnik, the Soviet Union pulled off another coup with Luna 3, launched on October 4th, 1959, to send back the first photographs of the far side of the Moon.

Now by 21st century standards, the image quality was not great, and if you gave me a mouldy orange and a piece of sandpaper I could probably get a similar result.  But back then it was a startling technological achievement, and more importantly, something the Americans hadn’t done yet.

After its launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome,  Luna 3 reached as close as 6,200 km of the lunar surface, and took a total of 29 photographs before heading back towards Earth. As there was no chance of recovering the probe, the plan was to transmit these photographs electronically to Soviet ground stations. This was only partly sucessful because the craft had a lower than expected signal strength, but about half the pictures were eventually retrieved before contact was lost on October 22nd.

Soviet postage stamp commemorating the start of far-side photography on October 7th.



October 04 – A big day: Launch of Sputnik 1 (1957)

Today is one of those days where the world changes forever. Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, was launched by the USSR on October 4th 1957, straight into the history books. It was launched from what is now the Baikonur Cosmodrome into a low orbit, and transmitted simple radio signals (basically just beeps) back down to anyone who cared to listen (plenty did, including the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, just up the road from here) as it orbited the Earth every 96 minutes. This continued for 26 days, after which the batteries were flat. About eight weeks later Sputnik re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and was burned to a crisp.

Sputnik 1 (replica)
Sputnik 1 (replica)

The original Soviet plan had been for a much larger satellite, known by the working name Object D. Unfortunately though, the number one priority of the Soviet space agency at that time was not to draw gasps of astonishment from the world’s scientists with a complex marvel, bristling with useful experiments, but to fling any old thing up there as long as it was before the Americans. So they went for the simplest shape (a 2-foot wide sphere with 4 antennae sticking out the back) and downsized to an easily launchable 83kg weight.  Object D wasn’t forgotten though, and eventually became Sputnik 3.

Sputnik 1, being quite diminutive, would have been hard to spot from down here, but fortunately it was part of a convoy of three objects. The actual satellite itself was sandwiched between the nose cone that had protected it before separation, and the much larger (and therefore much brighter) second stage rocket booster.

Also today, asteroid 50 Virginia was discovered by James Ferguson in 1857 from Washington DC. It may have been named after the Roman noblewoman Verginia, but then again it may not. The jury is still out.

1885  –  Discovery of asteroid 251 Sophia by Johann Palisa, and named after the wife of Hugo von Seeliger, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Munich.

July 30 – Launch of Kosmos 36 (1964)

The wasp’s head in today’s illustration is actually Kosmos (Cosmos, if you prefer) 36, which was launched by the USSR on July 30th, 1964, via a Kosmos 2I launcher from the Kasputin Yar site (now in the Russian Federation) between Volgograd and Astrakhan.  It was used as a radar calibration target during tests of a missile defence system to presumably protect the comrades from the likes of decadent me.

Kosmos 36 (image credit: KB Yuzhnoye).
Kosmos 36 (image credit: KB Yuzhnoye).

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