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 15 – Launch of Mercury-Atlas-9 (MA-9)

May 15th 1963 was launch day for Mercury-Atlas-9, the last of the crewed US Mercury program, and the last time an American astronaut was sent into orbit alone. There were also a couple of firsts, including the first American astronaut to spend an entire day in space, and the first to sleep in space.

That astronaut was Leroy Gordon Cooper (he preferred Gordon or “Gordo” to Leroy), World War II US Marine Corps veteran, fighter pilot and test pilot, and just the kind of man, as you can probably see from his official photo, to think nothing of being hurled round the planet in a hi-tech tin can.

Leroy Gordon Cooper, MA-9 Astronaut. (Image: NASA)

The MA-9 orbiter, known as Faith 7, spent just over 34 hours off the ground, in which time it managed 22 orbits of the Earth (almost 900,000 km) before splashing down South East of Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. Somehow, despite a series of technical issues, including the loss of altitude readings and a short circuit that took out the automatic stabilization system, Cooper was able to manufacture the most accurate splashdown of the entire program.

Gordon Cooper being peeled out of Faith 7. (Image: NASA)

2006 — Launch of PAMELA, the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics (obviously) attached to the Russian Recurs-DK 1 reconnaissance satellite.

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.

May 07 – Launch of SAS C (Explorer 53)

Wow. I just looked on my WordPress page and saw that the latest entry under “recently published” is dated Sept 13th 2017. I never realised I could be quite as lazy as this. It’s time for an update.

Today in 1902 asteroid 485 Genua was discovered at Heidelberg Observatory by Italian astronomer Luigi Carnera (1875-1962). Genua is a main belt asteroid of about 64km diameter, and is one of 16 discovered by Carnera, all of which happened in the years 1901 and 1902, while he was under the spell of legendary asteroid hunter Max Wolf. Carnera himself had to wait until 1995 before having anasteroid named in his honour (number 39653).

May 7th 1975 saw the launch, from the San Marco offshore platform in Kenya, via a Scout launch vehicle, of SAS-C, also known as SAS-3 or Explorer 53. The primary mission of this small astronomical satellite was to measure various X-ray sources, using four experiments. The Extra-Galactic Experiment (EGE) was used to pinpoint very weak X-ray sources beyond the Milky Way; the Galactic Monitor Experiment (GME) measured variations in intensity of sources whose position had been determined using EGE; the Scorpio Monitor Experiment (SME) was pointed specifically at the strongest known source of X-rays in the known universe (Scorpius X-1), and the Galactic Absorption Experiment (GAE) measured the density of interstellar matter using variations in the X-ray background.

SAS C (image credit: NASA)
SAS C (image credit: NASA)

Today also marks the launch the shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-49 to retrieve and relaunch the intelsat 603 satellite. The mission was a success, and included the first ever 3-astronaut EVA (spacewalk).

Crew of Endeavour mission STS-49 (image credit: NASA)
Crew of Endeavour mission STS-49 (image credit: NASA)

Last updated: May 08, 2019.

September 12 – Gemini XI

Gemini XI, launched on September 12th 1966, was the 17th manned US spaceflight, and the 9th manned flight of the Gemini programme. It was crewed by Charles “Pete” Conrad and Richard “Dick” Gordon. The main aim of the mission was to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, to simulate the return of a Lunar Module to the Command/Service Module following a landing. Several such rendezvous were performed successfully, as well as two periods of extra-vehicular activity (that’s space walks to you and me).

The Crew of Gemini XI
The Crew of Gemini XI (image credit: NASA)

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Asteroid 59 Elpis  is a rather large, dark (albedo 0.04) C-type asteroid in the main belt. It has a diameter of 165 km.  Elpis was discovered by Jean Chacornac on September 12th 1860 (it was his last find). The name Elpis was chosen by Karl L Lithow, director of the Vienna Observatory. Elpis is the personification of ‘hope’ in Greek mythology, and was supposedly the only item left in Pandora’s pithos (jar, not box) after she had emptied it.

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Firstly, asteroid 117 Lomia was discovered by Alphonse Borrelly on September 12th 1871 from Marseilles. It has a nearly circular orbit, and in composition is somewhere between a C-type and an X-type. The origin of the name is unknown.

And secondly, asteroid 241 Germania (C-type, main belt) was discovered today in 1884 by Robert Luther in Düsseldorf. He named it, obviously, after his homeland.  I was tempted here to insert a photograph of a moustachioed general in a uniform and spiky helmet, but I resisted. No racial stereotypes here.

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September 05 – Voyager 1

Launched September 5th 1977, Voyager 1 is now, 40 years later, 20 billion km (132 AU) from the Sun, and still working.  I say from the Sun because it sometimes gets closer to the earth due to the speed of this planet around our star.  It has recently been announced that Voyager 1 has finally reached interstellar space, although as it is still some years from the inner edge of the Oort Cloud, I’m not so sure.

Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)
Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

I won’t say too much here about what Voyager 1 achieved, because there will be other opportunities for that on the anniversaries of its encounters with Jupiter (April 13) and Saturn (December 14).

All we need to mention here is the launch, via a Titan launch vehicle (that’s a rocket to you and me) from Cape Canaveral, two weeks after Voyager 2. Voyager 1, following a shorter trajectory, reached Jupiter and Saturn first though, so the numbering system makes sense.

Launch of Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)
Launch of Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

The timing of the Voyager missions was spookily convenient. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune line up in such a way as to optimise a “gravity assist” flyby of all four every 175 years. This alignment coincided nicely with the technology necessary for the flight becoming available in the late 1970s. Even so, the cost of building a spacecraft capable of definitely making it as far as Neptune was so great that most of the effort went into ensuring a successful mission as far as Saturn, with finger-crossing and prayer being employed for the remainder of the trip.

As it happened, of course, they both turned out to be even more reliable than a Lexus, and they, with their golden discs, continue to carry greetings from Earth, and the music of Chuck Berry, to the edge of the Solar System and beyond. (Did anybody ever stop to consider whether Johnny B. Goode might be a declaration of war on some planets?)

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July16 – Launch of Apollo 11

July 16th 1969 is a fairly important day in spaceflight history.  It’s the day on which Neil A Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin decided to get away from it all.  Their Saturn V rocket (SA-506), the fifth manned Apollo mission, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre at about half past one in the afternoon (Staffordshire Time) and may be the reason I have the vaguest recollection of my infant school gathering after dinner to watch a launch on the school television.

Launch of Apollo 11 (image credit: NASA)
Launch of Apollo 11 (image credit: NASA)

Also today, in 1990, Mark R Showalter, using old frames from Voyager 2, discovered Saturn’s walnut-shaped moon, Pan, in the Encke Gap of the A Ring (the outermost of the main bright rings).

Thanks to the Cassini probe, we now have images beyond the wildest dreams of Voyager scientists:

Pan, imaged by Cassini (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Pan, of course, invented the pan pipes. He was a pretty hot musician all round, but a little big-headed. The story goes that he challenged Apollo to a musical duel. Pan was good, but Apollo was better. Only one person listening to the contest believed that Pan had won. This was Midas (he of the golden touch). So annoyed was Apollo at this lack of musical taste that he changed Midas’ ears into something more appropriate: those of a donkey.

The Judgement of Midas (Peter Paul Rubens)
The Judgement of Midas (Peter Paul Rubens)

Now, correct me if I’m incorrect, but in today’s artistic offering, is Pan playing his own invention upside-down?

This post originally published in 2015.  Updated 2017. 

December 14 – Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe was born today in 1546 in Denmark. As the child of a wealthy family (he was born in a castle) he was well placed to receive a good education, and took up astronomy while studying law.

Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)
Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)

Tycho made several leaps of the imagination, including the development of his own model of the solar system, which he nearly got right. He correctly deduced that the Moon orbits the Earth, and that the planets orbit the Sun. unfortunately he also decided that the Sun must orbit the earth; an easy mistake to make I suppose at that time, if you spend your entire life seeing it cross the sky thousands of times in front of your very eyes.

Tycho was also the first person to decide that novae (they weren’t called that at the time) originated further away than the Moon. The popular view was that the stars were fixed and unchanging, and anything that appeared in the sky had  to be closer than them. But Tycho noticed that a bright new star in Cassiopeia (now called SN1572) did not move against the background stars, and so must be farther away than all the objects that did. It sounds fairly reasonable to us, but in the 16th century the night sky was anything but obvious.

2009 – Launch of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) by NASA, on a mission  to map 99% of the sky. So far, it has found more than 33,000 asteroids and comets, over 200 Near-Earth Asteroids (including 43 potentially hazardous ones), the most luminous galaxy in the known universe, and numerous brown dwarfs.

2013  –  the Chinese Chang’E 3 mission lands on the Moon.

The Chang'E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)
The Chang’E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)



October 22 – Asteroid 209 Dido

Asteroid 209 Dido, discovered by C H F Peters on October 22nd 1879, is a large, C-type main belt asteroid with a very low albedo.  It is about 140 km (87 miles) in diameter, and completes one rotation every eight hours of its 2039 day journey around the Sun.

Dido was the mythological queen and founder of Carthage, and sister of Pygmalion (the guy who fell in love with a statue he had carved).  She is best known for (i) her affair with Aeneas, the Trojan hero, and (ii) being the subject of an opera by Henry Purcell.

Guercino's "Death of Dido" (1631)
Guercino’s “Death of Dido” (1631)

Today’s artistic offering is by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591 – 1666), the self-taught, cross-eyed, fast painting Italian genius, more commonly known as Guercino (meaning “squinter”), responsible for more than 100 altarpieces and nearly 150 paintings.

1969  ⇒ Splashdown of Apollo VII, the first manned Apollo mission.

1905  ⇒ Birth of Karl Jansky, one of the founding fathers of radio astronomy.

October 04 – Sputnik 1

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 Jodrell Bank, just up the road) 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.

1959  –  Launch of Luna 3, the first mission to photograph the far side of the Moon.

Other asteroid discoveries today include 650 Amalasuntha (queen of the Ostragoths) and 651 Antikleia (mother of Odysseus), both spotted on October 4th 1907 by prolific asteroid hunter August Kopff of Heidelberg.