July 21 – Small Step; Big day

July 21st 1969 is going to take some beating as far as big days go.  I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s just really obvious that nobody has ever done anything even remotely as impressive as walking on the Moon.  The more one thinks about it, the less likely it seems that it was even possible with 1960′s technology (don’t forget that the processors used in the guidance system were smaller than the ones available in home computers just a decade later, and my android phone is obviously from a different planet).

Pretty big shoes to fill (image credit: NASA)
Pretty big shoes to fill (image credit: NASA)

Maybe something to top it will come along eventually (the first gay pope to visit  Mars, maybe?) but in the meantime, here are a couple of other events being commemorated and largely forgotten in the enormous shadow thrown by Neil Armstrong’s boots.

1914  –  Discovery of Jupiter’s moon Sinope by S B Nicholsonwhile he was working as a summer assistant at Lick Observatory.  The ninth satellite of Jupiter to be spotted, Sinope was, as I say, discovered in 1914, but didn’t receive a proper name until 1975; until then it was simply “Jupiter IX”.  It was named, along with eight other moons, “on the recommendation of the Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature” of the IAC.  Nicholson’s discovery was slightly serendipitous, as he was actually photographing “Jupiter VIII” at the time with the 36-inch British-built Crossley Reflector, a device the observatory had bought from it’s previous owner when it became obvious that the skies above Halifax, England, were a waste of a large telescope.

1998  –  RIP Alan Shepard.  Shepard (another of the Mercury Seven) was, as commander of Apollo 14, the fifth man on the Moon, and the first to play golf there.  It’s perhaps just as well that the Americans conquered the Moon.  I doubt the effect would have been quite the same when the first Briton on the surface got his dartboard out.

1961  – Launch of MR-1, the first unmanned spacecraft of the Mercury project.  A spectacular failure, it managed to attain an altitude of four inches in a flight lasting 2 seconds.

2006  –  Discovery of Actaea, the satellite of trans-Neptunian object  120347 Salacia.


July 20 – Sea of Activity (1969)

Today was a very big day in 1969, as it was the day on which, at 17 minutes past 8 in the evening, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (but not Michael Collins) landed their lunar module in the Sea of Tranquility, becoming the first humans in a short line of white, American males to land on the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 11 Crew (image credit: NASA)
Apollo 11 Crew (image credit: NASA)

There has been a great deal written and said about this event, and even more than usual in this 50th anniversary year, with which I won’t attempt to compete. I will just say that although the intrepid moon men brought back 21.5 kg of lunar material, the main impact of their visit from the Moon’s perspective was to leave behind several tonnes of extremely expensive scrap metal.

Tranquility from the window of the Lunar Module (image credit: NASA)
Tranquility from the window of the Lunar Module (image credit: NASA)

The Sea of  Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis), once thought to be an ocean on the Moon, is a large basalt basin, probably produced by a lava flow following the impact of something quite large, at the time of the Pre-Nectarian epoch, meaning it was formed before the Mare Nectaris.  The Pre-Nectarian doesn’t really have an equivalent epoch on Earth, because any rocks of a similar age down here would long ago have been sucked back below the surface to be recycled.

Looking towards home from Apollo 11 landing site (image credit: NASA)
Looking towards home from Apollo 11 landing site (image credit: NASA)



July 18 – Birth of John Glenn (1921)

Today marks the birth, in 1921, of John Herschel Glenn, Jr,  (died December 8th 2016), liver of quite a full life, of Scottish descent (I believe he also had relatives in Sheffield), and born in Cambridge, Ohio.  Reading that sentence back the word “liver” sounds a bit anatomical, but I’m going with it anyway.

Glenn was a member of Astronaut Group 1, more commonly known as the Mercury Seven, the original hand-picked, hard-boiled, right-stuff-infused group of astronauts selected by NASA in 1959, who had a presence in all of the classes of manned American spacecraft of the twentieth century (MercuryGeminiApollo and Shuttle).

John Herschel Glenn Jr, of the clan Glenn-Macintosh. (Image credit: NASA).
John Herschel Glenn Jr, of the clan Glenn-Macintosh. (Image credit: NASA).

Here’s a potted history of some of John Glenn’s achievements:  fighter pilot in the South Pacific, North China and Korea; test pilot; first supersonic transcontinental flight; first American to orbit the Earth; senator (Democrat); oldest person in space.

On a slightly less joyous, less happy-birthday-to-you-ous note, he managed to get himself caught up in the Lincoln Savings and Loan affair, and was for a time opposed to the inclusion of women in NASA’s astronaut program.  That said, I still don’t know how a man who had once had a ticker-tape parade through New York in his honour later managed to lose the vice-presidential race to career politician and sometime lawyer Walter Mondale, a man who would later go on to suffer one of the biggest landslide defeats in US presidential election history.

Walter Mondale is of Norwegian descent, and the ancestral family home is the village of Fjærland, on a tributary of the Sognefjord, which gives me an extremely tenuous reason to end with one of my own photographs, taken a mere ten miles or so downstream from chez Mondale in 2010.

Sognefjord, 2010. (Image credit: me.)
Sognefjord, 2010. (Image credit: me.)

1966  –  Launch of Gemini X (command pilot John W Young and pilot Michael Collins) from Cape Canaveral launch site LC-19.  This was the sixteenth manned American spaceflight.

1997  –  Death of Eugene Shoemaker, astrogeologist, and co-discoverer of comets (along with his wife and David Levy).  Of their combined tally, the most important was  probably Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994.

July16 – Launch of Apollo 11 (1969)

I’ll keep this quick, but as you may have heard, July 16th 1969 is a fairly important day in spaceflight history.  It’s the day on which Neil A Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin decided to get away from it all.  Their Saturn V rocket (SA-506), the fifth manned Apollo mission, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre at about half past one in the afternoon (Staffordshire Time) and may be the reason I have the vaguest recollection of my infant school gathering after dinner to watch a launch on the school television.

Launch of Apollo 11 (image credit: NASA)
Launch of Apollo 11 (image credit: NASA)

So it’s 2019, and 50 years since the launch, and the media is abuzz with stuff about every tiniest aspect of the mission, so I’m not going to try to compete.

Also today, in 1990, Mark R Showalter, using old frames from Voyager 2, discovered Saturn’s walnut-shaped moon, Pan, in the Encke Gap of the A Ring (the outermost of the main bright rings).

Thanks to the Cassini probe, we now have images beyond the wildest dreams of Voyager scientists:

Pan, imaged by Cassini (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Pan, of course, invented the pan pipes. He was a pretty hot musician all round, but a little big-headed. The story goes that he challenged Apollo to a musical duel. Pan was good, but Apollo was better. Only one person listening to the contest believed that Pan had won. This was Midas (he of the golden touch). So annoyed was Apollo at this lack of musical taste that he changed Midas’ ears into something more appropriate: those of a donkey.

The Judgement of Midas (Peter Paul Rubens)
The Judgement of Midas (Peter Paul Rubens)

Now, correct me if I’m incorrect, but in today’s artistic offering, is Pan playing his own invention upside-down?

This post originally published in 2015.  Updated 2017, and again in 2019. 

July 09 – Voyager 2 Reaches Jupiter (1979)

July 9th 1979 was, I remember, an exciting day, and one I’d been looking forward to for years.  It was the day on which Voyager 2 got to within a cosmic whisker (350,000 miles) of Jupiter.

Jupiter from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
Jupiter from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

Several important discoveries were made during and after the approach, including three new moons (AdrasteaMetis and Thebe), the unexpectedly prolific volcanicity of Io, and several new rings to add to the Jovian collection. Jupiter’s rings are hard to spot at the best of times, as they are composed mostly of dust from the small moons Amalthea, Thebe, Metis and Adrastea.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot (and the less great White Oval) from V2 (image credit: NASA)
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (and the less great White Oval) from V2 (image credit: NASA)


1879  —  Asteroid 199 Byblis was discovered by C H F Peters, named after a daughter of Miletus, who, according to Ovid, fell in love with her twin brother and chased him all over Greece.  A little bit unusual, even by the standards of Greek gods.

"Biblis" (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825-1905)
“Biblis” (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825-1905)

July 08 – Discovery of Jupiter’s Moon, Adrastea (1979)

Adrastea, the second moon out from the “surface” of Jupiter, was discovered by analysis of Voyager 2 images in 1979 by David C Jewitt and G Edward Danielson.  A subsequent photograph is available (the Voyager one was of a tiny speck) taken by the Galileo spacecraft, and here it is, looking more like an out-of-focus lemon than a moon . . . .

Adrastea (image credit: NASA)
Adrastea (image credit: NASA)

Adrastea is like the Earth’s Moon, in that it always keeps one face pointing towards the parent planet, but it has an unusual orbital period of 7 hours 9 minutes, which is about two hours less than one Jovian day, even though Jupiter has the fastest rotation of all the planets (which accounts for its easily visible bulge).  Only a very few moons do this (three are known, the others being Metis and Mars’ moon Phobos).  As I mentioned two days ago, we can tell without looking it up that Adrastea will have a prograde orbit, because it ends with an “a”.

Metis and Adrastea share another unusual fact in common.  They orbit too close for comfort to their parent, meaning that at some point in the future they will impact the planet.

In Greek mythology, Adrasteia was the nymph who had to nurse Zeus and hide him from his father, Kronos.  Her name means “inescapable”.

1695   –   Death of Christian Huygens.

1959   –   Launch of Explorer 6.

2011   –   Final launch of shuttle Atlantis (flight number STS-135).

July 03 – Launch of SAMPEX (1992)

SAMPEX was the Solar Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer. It was launched on July 3rd 1992 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a Scout Rocket (and was RIP Nov 13, 2012).

SAMPEX (image: NASA)
SAMPEX (image: NASA)

SAMPEX’s instruments were far more sensitive than those of previous similar missions, which allowed a great deal of new information to be gathered on the composition of interstellar gas, the mechanism of solar atmospheric heating and the relative abundance of various isotopes.

As you can see from the photograph, SAMPEX was quite dinky.  This is because it was an early success of NASA’s Small Explorer Program, or SMEX. (Why not SEX? They could have improved their hit rate on Google by loads.)

SMEX funds projects costing no more than $120m.

June 30 – Tunguska (1908) / #AsteroidDay (now)

There is still a certain amount of uncertainty surrounding the Tunguska Event, mostly because nobody was around to monitor it closely as it happened, and if they had been they would have probably died. But a large explosion occurred, perhaps several miles up in the air, near the Podkamennaya Tunguska river in Russia at just after seven in the morning on June 30th 1908. It remains the largest impact in recorded history, even though to this day we still don’t (and probably never will) know the size of the object involved. Estimates over the years have put it at anything from 60 to 200 metres diameter, with an even wider range of learned guesses for the force of the explosion. What isn’t in doubt is that the human population of this planet got really lucky that day, as the remoteness of the impact location meant that all 80 million known casualties were trees.

You’ve probably seen this photograph before, but I can’t stop myself from putting it in, because everybody else does. It was taken by the 1927 expedition to Tunguska led by noted Soviet (Estonian) mineralogist and meteorite specialist Leonid Kulik.

Partly because of the Tunguska Event, today is also “Asteroid day”, the main aim of which is to both raise awareness of the asteroid threat, and try to poke governments and scientific bodies into taking more urgent action to predict when the next Tunguska might happen so that something can be done about it in advance, rather than after Stockholm, for instance (which is at roughly the same latitude as Tunguska) has been destroyed by an undetected 500 metre wide rock falling from the sky.


Today also marks the launch, in 2001, of WMAP, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, with the aim of mapping the afterglow left behind by a very young Universe, aged about 375,000 years.

WMAP's famous baby picture of the Universe (image credit: NASA)

WMAP’s famous baby picture of the Universe (image credit: NASA)

The illustration today, which you have probably seen before, is an all-sky picture of 13 billion year old temperature fluctuations in the range of about plus or minus 200 microKelvin. A microKelvin is very cold, by the way (one Kelvin is -273.15 Celcius).

1938 – Discovery, by Seth Barnes, of Carme, a retrograde moon of Jupiter. Originally known, unofficially, as Pan (a name since hijacked by one of Saturn’s smaller moons) it is named after the daughter of Phoenix and Cassiopeia, who was to be one of Zeus‘ many conquests, after which she became mother of the Cretan huntress goddess Britomartis.

June 24 – Launch of FUSE (1999)

FUSE (the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Observer) was launched using a Delta II vehicle (number 7320) on June 24th 1999 from Cape Canaveral.  (Unnecessary aside: cañaveral is Spanish for reed bed.)

FUSE provided value for money, for a change.  Designed to operate for three years, it actually kept going for eight, until a failure in the system used to point it accurately at targets rendered it effectively useless in September 2007.

FUSE (image: NASA)
FUSE (image: NASA)

FUSE was part of NASA’s ongoing Origins program, a collection of space- and Earth-bound observations designed to help get rid of some of those pesky, really fundamental questions about the Universe that are proving so hard to answer (such as where it came from, and whether anybody else lives in it).

The main aims of FUSE in this were to study (i) the amount of deuterium (a hydrogen isotope) out there, and (ii) the chemical evolution of galaxies. FUSE was able to study over 3000 targets during its eight year life; not just distant galaxies and quasars either, but also stars, planets and comets.

The idea behind using FUSE to measure deuterium was (very basically) that the amount we can measure today might be used to determine the conditions present at a stage in the evolution of the Universe before atoms as we know them today existed.

1852  –  S-type asteroid 18 Melpomene (the Greek muse of tragedy) discovered by John Russell Hind.

1915  –  Birth of Sir Fred Hoyle, in Gilstead, a village on the outskirts of Bingley, Yorkshire.  Sir Fred was no shrinking violet when it came to expounding his views.  He was opposed to the idea that life on Earth began here from scratch, had his own theory of gravity (disproved) and preferred the “steady state” theory of the universe rather than the stupendously more popular “Big Bang”.  Ironically though, Hoyle is credited with coining the phrase big bang.

June 21 – OSO-8

OSO-8 (known as OSO-I until launch) was the eighth Orbiting Solar Observatory launched by NASA. Lift-off was by a Delta 1910 launch vehicle on June 21st 1975. OSO-8 lived until October 1st 1978.


I love these 1960′s and 1970′s NASA artists impressions. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t give you any idea of the scale; it looks like it might have been free in a box of corn flakes. To give you an idea, the “wheel” section at the bottom is about 6 feet across. And it spins! It’s like something Gerry Anderson would invent for “UFO”.

As well as being a solar observatory, there were four other experiments on board to study cosmic rays. Highlights of the mission include the detection of black body spectra for X-ray bursts, and iron line detection in the X-ray spectra of a cluster of galaxies.

1863 – Where would I be without this guy? German astronomer and astrophotographer Max Wolf was born today in 1863, and as any regular visitor to this site will know, he was a phenomenal discoverer of asteroids, with an enormous 248 finds, from 323 Brucia on December 22nd 1891 (named after an American patron of astronomy), to 5926 Schönfeld (a German astronomer) on August 4th 1929.

Keen eyed astronomer, Max Wolf.
Keen eyed astronomer, Max Wolf.

Wolf was also a noted spotter of comets, and was the first person to see Halley’s Comet in 1910.