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.

June 16 – Discovery of Proteus

Today’s anniversary is the discovery of Neptune‘s second largest moon, Proteus, found by analysis of Voyager 2 snapshots taken over a period of time leading up to June 16th 1989.  So, while June 16th isn’t the actual discovery date,    it’s as close as we’re likely to get.  It is thought that Proteus wasn’t formed at the same time as Neptune, but is a by-product of the capture of Triton.

Proteus is approximately 418 km in diameter (about 260 miles) and orbits Neptune close to the equatorial plane at a distance of a little over 117,000 km.  But aside from this, and the fact that it is dark and heavily cratered, almost nothing else is known about it.

Proteus (from Voyager 2). Image credit: NASA.
Proteus (from Voyager 2). Image credit: NASA.

Proteus is named after a shape-changing sea god, son of Poseidon, the Greek god whose Roman equivalent is Neptune.  Neptune’s moons are generally named after children or other associates of Poseidon (Triton, for example, was his other son).


2010: Launch of Soyuz TMA-19.


June 15 – Launch of Soyuz 29

1973Kosmos 573 launched today.  It was an unmanned flight of the two-man Soyuz ferry, testing its ability to transport crews to Salyut space stations.

Fast forward five years, and by June 15th 1978 the Salyut program was in full swing. The launch of Vladimir Kovalyonok and Aleksandr Ivanchenkov onboard Soyuz 29 was to the Salyut 6, which had been put into orbit in September 1977, and became home to 11 crews in total.

Stamp showing the crew of Soyuz 29 and part of a Salyut Space Station

The first task for this crew was to get the station up and running again after a three-month period during which it had been vacant.  In orbit this involves more than just turning on the electricity and gas, and clearing up the junk mail.  It took about a week to get the atmosphere breathable, the temperature bearable, and the crew adjusted to weightlessness.


The Salyut 6 Station.

During their stay, the two-man crew of Salyut 6 became a four-man crew when they were visited by Soyuz 30, part of the “Intercosmos” program of flights involving cosmonauts from The allies of the USSR.  Soyuz 30 carried Pyotr Klimuk, the first Belarusian cosmonaut, and Mirosław Hermaszewski, the first from Poland.


June 08 – Giovanni Domenico Cassini

On this day in 1625 the Italian mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini was born in the tiny municipality of Perinaldo.

Cassini (Leopold Durangel, 1879).
Cassini (Leopold Durangel, 1879).

Cassini held several important astronomical positions during his career, including professor of astronomy at Bologna University, and director of the Paris Observatory, and was responsible for the discovery of four saturnian moons: Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione. He also discovered the Great Red Spot on Jupiter (at the same time as Robert Hooke, so he only gets half a credit for that one), and the “gap” in Saturn’s rings which now bears his name, the Cassini Division. I’ve put the word “gap” in inverted commas because recent visits to the planet have found it to be actually quite busy (see below).

The Cassini Division (image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute)
The Cassini Division (image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute)

Cassini wasn’t just a gas giant geek, though, and made observations of our nearest planetary neighbour, Mars, from Paris (simultaneously with a colleague a long way away in French Guiana to make the angle as big as possible) to make the first calculation of the size of the solar system using parallax. The relative positions of all the known planets had already been calculated, so only the distance to one was needed in order to have a stab at working out how far away they all were. Mars was the obvious choice because it’s the closest, so the apparent shift would be greatest. Cassini’s measurements turned out to be not too far from the values we have now; he used his observations to calculate the Earth-Sun distance as 21,700 “Earth radii”. Today we use the accepted value of 23,455.

1873: Main belt asteroid 146 Lucina discovered by Alphonse Borrelly, and named after the Roman goddess of childbirth.

1887: Themistian asteroid 268 Adorea discovered by Alphonse Borrelly.

2011:  Launch of Soyuz TMA-03M.


June 07 – Launch of Soyuz TM-5 (1988)

The Russian Soyuz program is the gift that keeps on giving.  Any date about which I’m short of something to write there’s bound to have been a Soyuz launch.

Today’s mission, from 1988, was to the MIR space station, which at the time had been in orbit for just over two years.

As with most flights to space stations, the crew launched aboard Soyuz TM-5 was different to the crew who landed three months later.   Going up were Russians Anatloy Solovyov (on the first of his five visits to Mir) and Viktor Savinykh, and Bulgarian research cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov.  Aleksandrov became the first Bulgarian in space.  Coming back down were Russian Vladimir Lyakhov, and the first Afghan in space, Abdul Ahad Mohmand.

Soyuz TM-5 Crew.

The expedition comprising the three-man “up” crew was known as Mir EP-2.  The crew docked their Soyuz to Mir’s aft port on June 9th, but moved the craft to the fore port on June 18th following the departure of Soyuz TM-4 the previous day.

Soyuz TM-5 Mission Patch


June 06 – Launch of Soyuz 11 (1971)

In the history of spaceflight, June 6th 1971 is significant for all the wrong reasons, being the launch date of Soyuz 11, the crew of which are, to date, the only astronauts or cosmonauts to die beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Commander Georgy Dobrovolsky, and engineers Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev, docked with the Salyut 1 space station just under a day after lift-off, and spent 23 days in space, after which they made what looked like a successful re-entry. Unfortunately, on recovery of the capsule, all three were found to have asphyxiated due to a ventilation valve opening at an altitude of 168km, resulting in instant depressurization, and death within a matter of seconds.

Fourteen years later, on June 6th 1985, a more successful voyage in the series, Soyuz T-13, became the first mission to bring a previously “dead” space station, Salyut 7, back to life. Power had been lost on the station in February, and it was basically just drifting through space. The story of the mission was made into a film in Russia in 2017, but I’m not sure it’s been released over here yet.


2017: The 2-3kg Mukundpura meteorite lands in a farmer’s field near Jaipur in India (the weight can only be estimated because not all of it was necessarily found) . It was less spectacular than the 2002 explosion mentioned below, leaving a crater just 15cm deep and about 40cm wide. This was the second large Indian meteorite in under a day: the previous evening another weighing around 3kg had fallen in the Assam region.

2002: The “Eastern Mediterranean Event“. A meteorite explodes over the Mediterranean Sea with a force equivalent to 26 kilotons of TNT. I don’t blame you if you never heard of this one, because it was over water. Had it landed 200 miles away on Cyprus, I’m sure it would be a lot more famous. Don’t forget, #AsteroidDay is coming soon.

1924: Discovery of asteroid 1031 Arctica.

1931: Discovery of 1210 Morosovia.

1978: Discovery of asteroid 3369 Treshnikov.

1979: Launch of Soyuz 34.

2018: Launch of Soyuz MS-09.

June 05 – John Couch Adams

English mathematician and theoretical astronomer John Couch Adams was born on June 5th, 1819, near Launceston, in Cornwall. Under the guidance of his maternal uncle, the Rev. John Couch Grylls, and using the facilities of the Mechanics’ Institute, Devonport, to further his studies privately, at the age of 2o he entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. He excelled at mathematics to the point of achieving the exalted position of Senior Wrangler (nothing to do with cows or denim, it’s the top scoring maths graduate of the year) in 1843.

Two years previously he had already begun to be intrigued by the possibility of a planet beyond Uranus, as the following nineteenth century “note to self” shows:

“Formed a design . . . of investigating . . . the irregularities in the motion of Uranus, . . . in order to find whether they may be attributed to the action of an undiscovered planet beyond it . . . “

Adams’ study of the perturbations of Uranus’ motion first led him to conclude that an unknown planet beyond Uranus, located at double the distance from the Sun, might exert the necessary influence on Uranus if it was big enough, and in the right place. Following his obtaining more precise observations from the Astronomer Royal, a more refined prediction of how to locate the eighth planet was made, which Adams took to Greenwich Observatory and left for the attention of the aforementioned Astronomer Royal.

John Couch Adams
John Couch Adams

At the same time, Urban Le Verrier had also been on Neptune’s trail, and had predicted a location within one degree of that determined by Adams. Unfortunately for the reputation of British astronomy, the lack of accurate star charts meant that looking for an object moving against the background involved a painstaking wait for two lots of observations to be undertaken, recorded and compared. But Le Verrier’s calculations were in the hands of Dr Johann Galle at the Berlin Observatory and, despite beginning his search two months later than the British team (led by James Challis), with typical German efficiency he discovered the planet on the first night of observation, through the rather obvious method of having accurate star charts to hand.

1885 – Discovery of asteroid 248 Lameia by Johann Palisa. Lameia is a main belt asteroid of about 49 km diameter, of unknown spectral type. It’s strange that we can know some things about these rocks very precisely, and others not at all. For example, the JPL Small Body Database tells me that the orbital period (year) of 248 Lameia is 1418.21351670694 days. That’s quite precise.

Lameia takes its name from Greek mythology, as do most early asteroid discoveries. Lamia was a queen of Lybia who made the mistake of becoming one of Zeus’ lovers. The affair panned out in the usual fashion, with Zeus’ wife, Hera, finding out about it, and turning Lamia into a child-eating monster.

2002 – Discovery of trans-Neptunian object 50000 Quaoar. Potentially a dwarf planet (it has a diameter of about 1000 km, but more information on its mass is needed before a decision can be made) I’m mentioning it mainly because 50000 is a nice round number, and partly because Quaoar was the first TNO to be detected directly from Hubble Space Telescope images.


1980 – Launch of Soyuz T-2.