February 20 – Launch of Mercury-Atlas 6 (1962)

Mercury-Atlas 6 (mission name Friendship 7) was launched from Cape Canaveral at 9:47am EST this day in 1962 after several delays caused by bad weather and leaky fuel tanks.

John Glenn (image credit: NASA)
John Glenn (image credit: NASA)

The photograph shows astronaut John Herschel Glenn Jr practicing how to get into the Mercury spacecraft.  If it was me I’d be too busy practicing how to get out to pose for this one.

Spaceflights didn’t tend to last long in those days, so today is also the anniversary of the end of this particular mission.  Glenn was in flight for less than 5 hours (or should that be fewer than?), but in that time he managed to clock up over 65,000 miles.

During his 17,000 mph flight Glenn was forced to abandon the automatic control system following a fault, and was confronted by an erroneous error message suggesting that part of the heatshield was loose.  After which, he was expected to land his tin can in the middle of the Atlantic.  Whatever they paid him, it wasn’t enough.

1983  –  TENMA x-ray telescope launched.

This was a Japanese telescope, and the name “Tenma” is Japanese for Pegasus.  It had a short life, re-entering the atmosphere on January 19, 1989.  TENMA carried a Gas Scintillation Proportional Counter.  “What’s that?” I don’t hear you cry.  Well, it’s a chamber filled with an unreactive gas that can be ionized by x-rays.  Electrons of the gas then emit UV photons whose energy can be measured and converted into a measure of the energy of the x-rays.

1993  –  ASCA x-ray telescope launched.

ASCA  =  Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics.  ASCA was another Japanese x-ray telescope, their fourth.  It was the first mission to use CCDs for x-ray astronomy.

Our last launch of the day isn’t Japanese.  As you might expect from the name, ODIN has a Scandinavian origin (Swedish in this case).  Launched from Svobodny in eastern Russia on this day in 2001, Odin’s raison d’être is to study ozone depletion and  search for water and oxygen in interstellar space.  To enable it to do this it carries a 1.1 metre telescope and a spectrograph called OSIRIS (Optical Spectrograph and Infrared Imaging System).  As far as I know it’s still in use (but the Swedish National Space Board website needs updating).

Also today, asteroid 160 Una, a C-type in the main belt, was discovered by C H F Peters in 1876.  The name comes from The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer.


And now it is empassioned so deepe,
For fairest Vnaes sake, of whom I sing,
That my fraile eyes these lines with teares do steepe,
To thinke how she through guilefull handeling,
Though true as touch, though daughter of a king,
Though faire as euer liuing wight was faire,
Though nor in word nor deede ill meriting,
Is from her knight diuorced in despaire
And her due loues deriu’d to that vile witches share.

“The Faerie Queene”,  Edmund Spencer,  1596.

And finally, asteroid 288 Glauke was discovered by Robert Luther, 1890.


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 07 – Al Worden

Today is the 87th birthday of Alfred (Al) Worden, a member of one of humankind’s most exclusive clubs.  You can probably tell which club I’m talking about by glancing at the photograph.  Worden was born in Jackson, Michigan in 1932, and after graduating from the US Military Academy in 1955 he spent some time as an instructor, pilot and armaments officer with the USAF, and even spent some time at Farnborough, England (quick – find a Union Jack to wave!) before being selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1966.  He was part of the support crew for Apollo 9, and back-up pilot for Apollo 12, before hitting the big time with Apollo 15.

Alfred Merrill Worden (image: NASA)
Alfred Merrill Worden (image: NASA)

Worden served as command module pilot on that particular mission, the fourth manned lunar landing.  He spent 295 hours and 11 minutes in space, of which 38 minutes were spent outside the command module, retrieving film cassettes and generally making sure everything was still there.   He holds the record for once being “the most isolated human being” (he was 2,234 miles 1,330 yards from his companions while they were on the surface).

You can read more about what Al is up to these days on his website,  www.alworden.com.

Happy Birthday Al.

It’s a litle worrying that of the 24 astronauts who flew to the Moon as part of the Apollo program, only 12 survive, and the youngest of those, Ken Mattingly, is 83. If we don’t get our collective act together soon, there will be no humans alive who have visited our nearest neighbour.


1824  ⇒  Birth of English astronomer William Huggins, spectroscopy pioneer. Huggins was the first person to distinguish between nebulae and galaxies (their spectra are different).

1878  ⇒  Asteroid 182 Elsa discovered by Johann Palisa, and probably named after the daughter of the Duke of Brabant, a character from the German Arthurian legend of Lohengrin. Elsa (the asteroid) is an S-type of uncertain diameter. Analysis of variations in the amount of light reflected towards us from her surface shows a fairly slow rotation (a little over 80 hours) and indicates an elongated shape.

1896  ⇒  Asteroid 415 Palatia discovered by Max Wolf. It is around 76 km in diameter and is unusually named after the “Electorate of the Palatinate”, a fragmented territory of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.

1977    Launch of the Soyuz 24 mission to the Salyut 5 Space Station. The crew of Commander Viktor Gorbatko and Flight Engineer Yuri Glazkov spent eighteen days in space, reactivating the station after a problem with toxic fumes had caused the previous crew to leave in a hurry . Both cosmonauts were awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” and the “Order of Lenin”. Gorbatko later went on to become a science fiction author.


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 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.


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 14 – Birth of 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)