May 07 – Launch of STS-49 (Space Shuttle Endeavour) 1992

Today marks the launch the shuttle Endeavour in 1992 on mission STS-49 to retrieve and relaunch the intelsat 603 satellite.

This was the maiden voyage of Endeavour, lasting 9 days.  The crew (left to right in the photo below) were Kathryn C Thornton, Bruce E Melnick, Pierre J Thuot, Daniel C Brandenstein (mission commander), Kevin P Chilton (pilot), Richard J Hieb and Thomas D Akers.

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

The mission was a success, and included the first ever 3-astronaut EVA (spacewalk).  Four EVA’s were carried out in total (another first), but only one of them involved three crew members. The need for so many EVA’s was the result of the first two attempts to catch the Intelsat not going according to plan.  That was also the reasoning behind sending three of them outside for the third EVA.  It’s understandable when you see the size of the fish they were trying to reel in (below):

Catch of the day (Image credit: NASA)

April 27 – Apollo 16 Returns Home (1972)

We have two spaceflight-related events today. The first is the splashdown of Apollo 16, about which I have written elsewhere. I’m mentioning it mainly to get this brilliant photograph in.

Apollo 16 Arrives (image: NASA)
Apollo 16 Arrives (image: NASA)

The second is from the other side of the iron curtain . . .

We have a birthday boy today, and it’s the man who has spent more time away from Earth on a single trip than anyone else in history. From 1994 to 1995 Valeri Vladimirovich Polyakov stayed aboard the Mir space station continuously for 437 days, completing over 7,000 orbits of the Earth.

Polyakov (born Korshunov – he changed his name when he was adopted by his stepfather) was born in Tula, Russia, on April 27th 1942, and studied at the I M Sechenov Medical Institute in Moscow, specialising in space medicine. This helped get him selected as a cosmonaut in 1972, although he didn’t get his first flight until 1988, a brief (by his standards) 240 days.

The main event, in 1994, also gave him the record for the longest total time spent in space, though this has since been broken. The purpose of such a long stint was to see how astronauts would react physically and mentally to a long-duration flight to Mars, and whether they would be capable of doing any decent work when they arrived. The results were promising, with no evidence of long-term performance problems following his return to Earth.

Polyakov retired from cosmonauting in 1995, and became deputy director of the Ministry of Public Health in Moscow.


April 26 – Discovery of Asteroid 83 Beatrix (1859)

1859  –  Birth of Italian astronomer Vincenzo Cerulli, one of the first people to suggest that Martian canals might be an optical illusion.  Cerulli discovered one asteroid, 704 Interamnia, named in honour of his home town.  Wikipedia has his birthday as April 20th, but other sources seem to agree on the 26th.

1865  –  Asteroid 83 Beatrix discovered by Annibale de Gasparis, another Italian.  It is an X-type asteroid, signifying it is part of a group of bodies with similar spectral characteristics, but not necesarily similar compositions.  This one was named for Beatrice Portinari, popularly thought to be the inspiration for the guide Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

"Dante and Beatrice" b y Henry Holiday. (Beatrice is second from the left.)
“Dante and Beatrice” b y Henry Holiday. (Beatrice is second from the left.)

1876  –  Asteroid 163 Erigone discovered by Henri Joseph Anastase Perrotin, director of the Nice Observatory, and discoverer of six asteroids.  A rare opportunity was missed last year when Erigone occulted the first magnitude star Regulus.  This kind of happening is rarely seen from heavily populated areas, and this one would have been visible from a small track that included New York.  Unfortunately Spode’s Law came into effect and it rained heavily throughout the quarter of an hour of the event.

1884  –  Main belt asteroid 236 Honoria discovered.  Honoria is named after the sister of Emperor Valentinian III.  She gets into the history books mostly as the perpetrator of one of the worst decisions ever made: asking Attila the Hun to help her get out of a dull marriage.  Honoria was discovered by Johann Palisa.  it is about 86 km across, and is a stony S-type.

1933  –  Birth of Arno Penzias, co-discoverer with Robert Wilson of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the faint echos of the Big Bang.

1957  –  Transmission of the first episode of “The Sky At Night” by the BBC.  Under the legendary Sir Patrick Moore, it became the longest running television programme in the World to have one presenter. It’s not quite the same these days, but new presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock (she will always be the “new” presenter to some of us) is growing on me.

1962  –  Launch of Ariel 1 (UK 1) the first British satellite.  Surprisingly, given our lackluster approach to spaceflight today, this launch made the United Kingdom the third country on the planet to have their own satellite (but we needed the Americans to launch it for us from Cape Canaveral).

April 25 – Birth of Astronomer Gérard de Vaucouleurs (1918)

Born today in 1918, Gérard de Vaucouleurs was a French astronomer who specialized in galaxies.   He is best known these days for his modification of Edwin Hubble‘s galaxy classification scheme.  De Vaucouleurs added barsrings and spiral arms to Hubble’s basic system of ellipticalspiral and lenticular galaxies.

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300 (image credit: NASA/ESA).
Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1300 (image credit: STScI/NASA/ESA).

In honour of Monsieur de Vaucouleurs, Today’s photo (a composite image by the Hubble Space Telescope) shows the most barred, armed, spiral galaxy I could find.  NGC 1300 is in the constellation Eridanus. It was discovered by John Herschel in 1835, and is a member of the Eridanus Cluster of about 200 galaxies.

 1848  –  The large main belt asteroid 9 Metis was discovered by Irish astronomer Andrew Graham.  It was to be the last Irish asteroid for 106 years.

1890  –  Asteroid 291 Alice, of the Flora family, discovered by Johann Palisa. Alice is roughly the shape of a giant jelly bean, at about 19 x 12 x 11 km.

1890  –  Asteroid 292 Ludovica was also discovered today, and was also one of Johann Palisa’s. Palisa was obviously smoking on April 25th, whereas Auguste Charlois was probably steaming some time afterwards, as he too discovered both asteroids, but on the 26th.

1906  –  Asteroid 599 Luisa was discovered from Taunton, Mass., by prolific American asteroid and comet hunter Joel Hastings Metcalf. The origin of the name isn’t known, but I would like to point out that Metcalf’s father was called Lewis.

1993  –  Launch of X-ray telescope Alexis (Array of Low Energy X-Ray Imaging Sensors).

April 23 – Launch of AGILE (2007)

AGILE (Astro‐rivelatore Gamma a Immagini Leggero) was launched April on 23rd, 2007.  AGILE is an Italian satellite, and is armed with x- and gamma ray imagers, a calorimeter (basically a device for measuring heat), and an anticoincidence system (a means whereby unwanted background events that would interfere with the results of the other detectors are suppressed, and it’s all getting a bit complicated, so I’ll stop there).

Also today, asteroid 1225 Ariane was discovered in 1930 by the Dutch astronomer Hendrik van Gent.  This is the first mention of Dr van Gent in these pages.  He discovered quite a few asteroids, but his contribution to astronomy was cut short by his sudden and untimely death at the age of 47.


The name relates to a character in Gabriel Marcel’s exploration of good and evil, Le Chemin de Crête.

April 21 – Discovrry of Asteroids 137 Meliboea and 162 Laurentia

Asteroid 137 Meliboea was discovered by Johann Palisa on April 21st 1874.  It is the largest of a family of similar asteroids, which includes the wonderfully named 2829 Bobhope, discovered by E L Johnson in 1948 and named after the legendary comedian.

Meliboea is a C-type asteroid of about 145 km (90 miles) wide, with an absolute magnitude of 8.1.  There are several Maliboea’s in Greek mythology, and it isn’t known after which one this particular discovery was named.

Two years later, on April 21st 1876, French astronomer brothers Paul and Prosper Henry spotted their ninth asteroid, 162 Laurentia, with credit for the discovery being attributed to Prosper, in line with their habit of taking one each alternately.  The name they chose was a tribute to another French astronomer, A. Laurent, discoverer of asteroid 51 Nemausa in 1858.  Laurentia is another C type, with a diameter of approximately 99 km (61 miles).

Our third and final asteroid of the day is 470 Kilia, discovered by Italian astronomer Luigi Carnera on this day in 1901.  Kilia is fairly small, at 26 km across (16 miles), and according to the JPL Small-Body Database, it is a stony “S-type”, and has been named in honour of the German town of Kiel, on the Jutland peninsula.

Luigi Carnera
Luigi Carnera

Carnera was always going to find an asteroid or two, as he had worked for Max Wolf, German asteroid-bagger extraordinaire.

1972  –  At 02:23 UT, John Young and Charles Duke, in the lunar module of Apollo 16, touched down on the Moon.  Pilot Ken Mattingly II had to stay behind to ensure the command module didn’t escape while they were down there.

April 19 – Asteroid 161 Athor (and friends)

There’s a lot going on today, and I couldn’t decide which to concentrate on, so here they all are, chronologically, in brief, beginning with . . .

1855  –  C-type main belt asteroid 35 Leukothea (a Greek sea goddess) discovered by Robert Luther.

1870  –  86 km wide M-type main belt asteroid 110 Lydia (a country in Asia Minor in the 15th and 14th centuries BC) discovered by Alphonse Borrelly.

1876  –  M-type main belt asteroid 161 Athor discovered by James Craig Watson.  Hathor, after whom this asteroid is named, was an Egyptian goddess of fertility, motherhood, beauty, and (unusually) mining.  If she looks a little odd in the picture it’s because she is often depicted as a cow.

Hathor emerging from a bed of papyrus
Hathor emerging from a bed of papyrus

1879  –  Carbonaceous asteroid 195 Eurykleia discovered by Johann Palisa.

1882  –  Asteroid 225 Henrietta discovered by Johann Palisa, and named after the wife of French astronomer Jules Janssen.

1955  –  Death of Albert Einsteinamateur violinist (among other things).  There are many witticisms attributed to Einstein, and I was tempted to put one in, probably the one concerning pretty girls and stoves, or the definition if insanity.  But trying to find a definitive translation from German, or even proving that the great man ever said them, is harder than I thought.

1971  –  Launch of Orion 1 space observatory, loaded aboard Salyut 1, the first ever space station.

1975  –  Launch of ARYABHATA, India’s first satellite (launched on their behalf by the Soviet Union).


April 17 – Discovery of Asteroid 17 Thetis (1852)

Today’s lump of rock, asteroid 17 Thetis, was discovered in 1852 by yesterday’s birthday boy, Robert Luther.  It was the first asteroid he discovered.

Thetis is a main belt asteroid approximately 90 km across, with an absolute magnitude of 7.76 (apparent magnitude from 9.9 to 13.5).

Not a great deal is known about Thetis, but it is thought to be an “S-type” asteroid (the S stands for stony).   S-types are the second most common asteroids after “C-types” (C = carbonaceous).

Black figure hydria showing Thetis and the Nereids mourning Achilles
Black figure hydria showing Thetis and the Nereids mourning Achilles

Most references to Thetis (goddess of water)  in Greek literature relate in some way to her role as mother of Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Trojan Wars, but she did have some adventures of her own, most notably protecting Zeus from a plot to overthrow him by summoning Briarius, a friendly “Hekatonkheire”, Greek for “hundred-handed one” (and just in case that wasn’t frightening enough, they had fifty heads as well).

2014  –  NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-186F by the Kepler mission, which is using the “transit” method to discover exoplanets.   Kepler had already discovered hundreds of planets, but this was the first Earth-sized planet, orbiting a red dwarf, to be spotted.  The Kepler team believes that red dwarf stars could provide the majority of “habitable zone” planets, and Kepler-186F is on the edge of the host star’s habitable zone, in an orbit similar to that of Mercury.

Kepler-186F, is, unsurprisingly, orbiting a star known as Kepler-186.  This is an “M dwarf” (the Sun is a “G dwarf”) about 500 light years away.  M dwarfs are the most populous type of star in the known universe (7 out of 10 stars fall into this category, even though they can’t be seen by the naked eye). M dwarf stars are much dimmer than the Sun, and smaller, some being only 8% the mass of our star.

Comparison graphic for Kepler-186F (image: NASA)
Comparison graphic for Kepler-186F (image: NASA)

We should probably resist the temptation to get too excited about the possibility of life on Kepler-186F.  It is not known whether it has an atmosphere, and NASA are uncertain as to whether the planet is “tidally locked”, which would be unhelpful to life, or subject to flares from the parent star, which would be fatal.   However, NASA say that the differences between the conditions on Earth and K-186F don’t rule out the possibility of life.

1861  –  Asteroid 67 Asia discovered by Norman Robert Pogson.

1888  –  Asteroid 276 Adelheid discovered by Johann Palisa.  The origin of the name is not known.  There were probably a few Adelheids (and Adelaides) around at the time, but the most high-profile was Princess Adelheid of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, a niece of Queen Victoria.  Unfortunately I can’t find anything spectacular happening in her life in 1888.  Another posibility though, is Princess Helena Adelaide of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, born in 1888 (the name Helena had already been taken for an asteroid discovered by  J C Watson in 1868).  Who can say?

1970  –  Splashdown of Apollo 13, following the scariest mission of the entire manned Apollo program.

View of the Moon from Apollo 13 (image credit: NASA).
View of the Moon from Apollo 13 (image credit: NASA).

April 16 – Robert Luther: Asteroid Hunter

Today is the birthday of Karl Theodor Robert Luther, born in 1822 in the town of Schweidnitz, which is now in Poland, but at the time was in Germany (where it remained until the end of WWII).

Luther discovered 24 asteroids between April 1852 and February 1890.  He died on February 15, 1900.  Like several other asteroid hunters, he is now honoured with a lunar crater and his own asteroid, 1303 Luthera (discovered March 16, 1928 by A. Schwassmann).

One of his asteroids, 90 Antiope, is very interesting (as asteroids go) because it consists of two almost identically sized bodies.  There’ll be more about that on October 1st.  I have been completely unable to find any picture or photograph of Luther, which is annoying.

1756  –  Death of Jacques Cassini.

1972  –  Launch of Apollo 16.

April 13 – Launch of Discoverer 2 (1959)

Discoverer 2 was launched on April 13th, 1959 from Vandenberg Air Force Base into a 239 x 346 km polar orbit via a Thor-Agena booster. It was a large cylindrical satellite, 1.5 metres in diameter, 5.85 metres long, and a hefty 3800 kg, designed to gather data for use in future missions, and to attempt ejection of an instrument package from orbit for recovery back down here.  This part of the plan was attempted on 14 April 1959, when a reentry vehicle was ejected, with the idea that it would come down somewhere conveniently near Hawaii for recovery.  Unfortunately, due to a malfunction, reentry was over the north polar region, and the capsule remains officially unrecovered, although there are those who say Soviet agents got to it first.  It has been suggested that this episode was partly the inspiration for Alistair MacLean’s novel, Ice Station Zebra.

Discoverer 2 Recovery vehicle being attached to the Thor-Agena launcher (image credit: USAF).
Discoverer 2 Recovery vehicle being attached to the Thor-Agena launcher (image credit: USAF).

Discoverer 2 successfully gathered a great deal of data on propulsion, communication, and stabilization. It was the first satellite to be stabilized in all three axes, and the first to be maneuvered by commands from Earth.

1906  –  Discovery of asteroid 598 Octavia by Max Wolf.  Octavia is a C-type asteroid of approximately 72 km diameter.  It was named for the prominent Roman noblewoman Octavia the Younger, sister of the emperor Augustus, fourth wife of Marc Antony, and great-grandmother of Caligula.  Octavia’s marriage to Marc Antony only lasted a few years before he abandoned her in favour of an old girlfriend, Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson (National Gallery, London).
Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson (National Gallery, London).

In today’s picture, supposedly an actual historical event, Octavia is seen swooning on hearing Virgil reading a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid.  The book contains details of the famous people encountered by Aeneas in the underworld, one of whom is Octavia’s son Marcellus (by her first husband), who had died at the age of nineteen.  The shock of hearing it is supposed to have caused Octavia to have fainted with grief.