November 28 – KBO 20000 Varuna

We hurtle way beyond the asteroid belt today, for a change, to celebrate the discovery of 20000 Varuna, first spotted for what it is on November 28th 2000 by Robert S Macmillan, despite appearing on photographic plates dating back to the 1950s.

Varuna is a fairly large classical Kuiper belt object (KBO). Estimates of its size vary widely from 600 to 1000km, but even if it turns out to be at the lower end, it still ranks highly in the KBO pecking order.

Varuna has a very rapid rotation (6.34 hours) and a double-peaked light curve. it is thought to be an elongated spheroid,  about half as wide again across the equator as from pole to pole.

Varuna pacifying Sri Rama.

Varuna pacifying Sri Rama.

The Hindu deity Varuna, after whom this particular oblate spheroid is named, has similar qualities to the Roman god Neptune, making it a good choice for what at the time was the largest known trans-Neptunian object.

Asteroid 235 Carolina was also discovered today, in 1883.  It is one of Johann Palisa‘s collection of 122 asteroids, and came while he was going through (by his standards) a dry patch in his rock hunting career.  Having discovered nine in 1882, he “only” managed two in 1883, before hitting his stride again in 1884 with six.  Part of the reason for this relative scarcity was probably that Palisa spent a good portion of the year 1883 travelling to watch a total solar eclipse.  The spot chosen for the expedition was near to Tahiti, in the chain of coral atolls known as the Line Islands.  More specifically . . . .

Caroline Island, Kiribati (image credit: NASA)

Caroline Island, Kiribati (image credit: NASA)


November 14 – The White Stuff

The first American to walk in space, Edward Higgins “Ed” White, was born on November 14th 1930, in San Antonio, Texas.

The son of a distinguished USAF major general, it was probably obvious from an early age that flying would figure big in his career, and after graduating from West Point in 1952 he joined the Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant.  After a spell at Bitburg Air Force Base in West Germany, he gained a masters degree in aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Lt Col Edward White (image credit: NASA)

Lt Col Edward White (image credit: NASA)

White was part of NASA’s 1962 second group of nine astronauts, and was quickly chosen to be the pilot of Gemini 4, and the first American to conduct an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) on June 3rd, 1965.  I have to add the word “American” because, as with so many firsts in the space race, the Russians had just pipped them to the post with Alexey Leonov, who spent 12 minutes outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, on March 18th.  Unsurprisingly, White had to be ordered back inside his craft from the ground, as he was reluctant to end the experience.

Ed White having the time of his life. (Image credit: NASA.)

Ed White having the time of his life. (Image credit: NASA.)

At the start of the Apollo program, White was a fairly obvious choice to be part of the first manned flight, but on February 21st, 1967, when he, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, entered Apollo 1 for a launch rehearsal, three weeks before the planned launch date, a fire broke out in the cabin, killing all three.

1969  ⇒  Launch of Apollo XII, the second manned Moon landing (Conrad, Bean and Gordon).

2003  ⇒  Discovery of trans-Neptunian object 90377 Sedna by  Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz, using the Palomar Quest camera.


January 05 – Eris

Dwarf planet Eris is the largest known member of a collection of objects known as thescattered disc, a subset of the larger group, the trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs).  It was discovered by a team from Palomar Observatory on January 5th 2005, and was given the “minor planet designation” of 136199.  Eris has a larger mass than Pluto by about 27% (and was partly responsible for the reclassification of Pluto by the IAU as a dwarf planet), making it the ninth most massive object orbiting the Sun.

Eris - Troublemaker

Eris – Troublemaker

Eris, and its moon Dysnonia, are a very long way away.  They orbit in a wild ellipse ranging from 38 to 97 AU from the Sun (about three times farther away than Pluto).

Eris has an appropriate name.  In Greek mythology she was the goddess of chaos and discord.  Inhabitants of Pluto, if they exist, would surely agree.

1969  –  Launch of the USSR’s Venus atmospheric probe Venera 5 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  It reached its target on May 16th, and sent back data for almost an hour while descending by parachute through the Venusian atmosphere.