November 22 – Asteroid 156 Xanthippe

Asteroid 156 Xanthippe was discovered by Johann Palisa on November 22nd 1875.  It has been classified as a C-type, with a diameter of about 116km and a rotation period of 22.5 hours.

Xanthippe, whose name means “yellow horse”, was the wife of Socrates, and is  a woman about whom we know little from historical sources.  Even Plato, a man with an interest in Socrates bordering on the obsessive, mentions her only briefly in his Phaedo.  In Xenophon’s writings she is shown to be a little on the argumentative side, and this view of her has been embroidered upon, probably unfairly, down the years, until by Shakespeare’s time her name had become synonymous with an aggressive, bad-tempered woman.

Socrates and Xanthippe

Socrates and Xanthippe

The engraving above, by the Dutch artist Otto van Veen, is of Xanthippe emptying a chamber pot over the head of Socrates (supposedly the outcome of one of their many arguments).

1944  ⇒  Death of Arthur Eddington, the man who gave us the Eddington limit, the maximum luminosity achievable by a star (aged 61).

1969  ⇒  The Skynet 1A satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.  This was the first of a series of British satellites providing a means of communication for the armed forces.  Being British, of course, it broke after about a year (I think the rubber band snapped) but is still in orbit, and is likely to remain there, according to the UK Space Agency “UK Registry of Outer Space Objects” for upwards of a million years.


October 28 – Asteroid 33 Polyhymnia

The Greek muse of sacred music was chosen to be the namesake of French astronomer Jean Chacornac’s second asteroid, 33 Polyhymnia, discovered on October 28, 1854.
Approximately 62km in diameter at its widest point, and rotating once every eighteen hours, this S-type main belt minor planet has an absolute magnitude of 8.55, and an unusually high eccentricity for such an early discovery, which helps it to reach quite good apparent magnitudes at certain times (10th magnitude is not unknown when Polyhymnia is close to Earth).



The muse Polyhymnia is often depicted as rather a serious figure, in a thoughtful or contemplative pose (holding her finger to her mouth, for example). Now, this is all very well for the muse of sacred hymns, but as she is also responsible for pantomime, I’m not sure I can take her all that seriously.

1971   ⇒    Launch of the Prospero satellite (X-3) by the UK, using a British Black Arrow rocket, making it the first all-British launch (almost – the launch took place from Woomera, South Australia).  The UK’s previous satellite was called Ariel, so you’ll probably not need telling which Elizabethan playwright is being nodded toward in the choice of names.  Prospero is still up there, and isn’t expected to decay until 2070.

A "spare" Prospero, on display in the Science Museum, London. (Image credit: Geni).

A “spare” Prospero, on display in the Science Museum, London. (Image credit: Geni).

Although no longer a working satellite, Prospero has been contacted every few years, usually on the anniversary of its launch (but less often recently).


October 27 – Kosmos 186 / TopSat

Kosmos 186 was launched today in 1967.  It was followed three days later by Kosmos 188, and together they performed the first ever fully automated docking by two spacecraft.


For the younger readers among you, DDR stands for Deutsche Demokratische Republik (the old East Germany).

And now it’s time for another of those rare events, a British satellite launch. This one was in 2005.

TopSat (Tactical Operational Satellite) is a small satellite, only about 80cm across, designed to show that size isn’t necessarily important when it comes to satellites.  It carries an ingeneously designed camera capable of much higher resolution images than would normally be possible from anything capable of being held in such a small area (they do it with mirrors).

TopSat was conceived, designed and built in Britain. Such a shame they had to launch it from Russia, on a Russian rocket. The British spaceflight industry may be rightly proud of their ability to do more with less, but it’s not much use if EasyJet are able to get higher off the ground without foreign help.

October 15 – Ariel V

The joint UK/USA satellite Ariel V was launched by  Scout B-1 solid fuel rocket, on October 15th 1974 from the Italian Space Agency’s San Marco platform off the coast of Kenya. It was an x-ray observatory, with a variety of instruments provided via NASA and the (now defunct) UK Science and Engineering Research Council. Operations were controlled from the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

Artist's Conception of Ariel V (image credit: NASA)

Artist’s Conception of Ariel V (image credit: NASA)

Ariel V was the fifth of six Ariels, launched between 1962 and 1979. It’s orbit decayed on March 14th 1980.  The name is probably a nod to the works of one of Britain’s biggest exports, William Shakespeare (our only other early satellite was called Prospero).

April 26 – Asteroid 83 Beatrix

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.

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).