June 15 – Launch of Soyuz TMA-19 (2010)

The launch, on June 16th, 2010, of Soyuz flight TMA-19, was the 100th mission to count as part of the International Space Station project (it was also the 106th Soyuz launch).

Mission Patch

The crew of TMA-19 were Russian commander Fyodor Yurchikhin, and American flight engineers Shannon Walker and Douglas Wheelock.  These three formed half of the ISS Expedition 24 crew, and between them they have an impressive record of time spent in space.  Early astronauts, even those who’ve been to the Moon and back, spent very little time beyond the atmosphere. Neil Armstrong managed 8 days 14 hours, and Buzz Aldrin 12 days.  But the days of Space Station missions mean astronauts can end up spending years off the planet.  For the crew of TMA-19 the figures are: 672 days for Yurchikhin, 178 days for Wheelock and 163 days for Walker.

TMA-19 Crew. From Left to Right: Wheelock, Walker, Yirchikhin. (image credit: NASA)

June 01 – Launch of Surveyor 1 (1966)

The Surveyors were a series of soft landing lunar probes designed to gather information about the Moon’s surface which was needed before committing to sending people up there (it would have been very embarrassing to watch a lunar module sink into the ground).  The first of these, Surveyor 1, was launched from Cape Canaveral on June 1st, 1966, using an Atlas-Centaur rocket, a modified form of the US Air Force’s Atlas ICBM.

Surveyor 1 as seen by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, 1999 (image credit: NASA)

The main scientific instruments on board were a TV camera and a “strain gauge” to measure the forces on landing.

A slightly better photograph of a Surveyor model on Earth (image credit: NASA)

There were seven Surveyors in total, with landing sites spread out across the Moon, of which numbers 2 and 4 crashed.  Surveyor 1 was sent to check out the area known as the Oceanus Procellarum (the Ocean of Storms), from where it took more than 11.000 photographs.  Procellarum is one of the lunar maria (seas), but being bigger than the rest it bears the name “ocean”.


May 31 – Launch of Shuttle Mission STS-124

2008: Space shuttle Discovery mission STS-124 was launched on May 31st to the International Space Station.  The crew of seven took with them a substantial part of the Japanese Experiment Module (the biggest single ISS module), a Buzz Lightyear figure, and spare parts for a malfunctioning toilet.  Spaceflight isn’t all glamour.

The mission, which lasted just under two weeks, blasted off from the John F Kennedy Space Centre at just after nine o’clock in the evening, docking with the ISS on June 2nd, and staying for nine days.

(Image credit: NASA)

The crew of STS-124 comprised mission commander Mark Edward Kelly, the only astronaut whose brother has also been into space, pilot Kenneth “Hock” Ham, who started flying on the advice of a schools careers counsellor, and  mission specialists Karen Nyberg, who is married to the pilot of STS-135, Ronald J Garan Jr., who took with him religious relics on behalf of a Carmelite order in Texas, Michael E Fossum, who later commanded ISS Expedition 29, Akihiko Hoshide, the third Japanese to walk in space, Gregory Chamitoff, apparently one of the very few people to have voted from space, and Garret E Reisman, now a consultant at SpaceX.

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).