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 18 – Launch of Apollo 10 (1969)

Apollo 10 was the fourth of the crewed flights in the NASA Apollo program, launched this day in 1969.

As usual there was a three man crew: Tom Stafford and John Young got to try out the lunar module, while Eugene Cernan stayed in the command module.

(Image credit: NASA)

Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the big one: landing men on the Moon.  As such, it was a great success.  Stafford and Young in the lunar  module were successfully separated, and got to within 9 miles (~16 km) of the surface. The “descent stage” of the lunar module was then jettisoned,  just as it would if they had actually landed (I’m not sure if anyone knows whether it’s still in orbit?) and the crew used the “ascent stage” to get back to Cernan.

The three then jettisoned the ascent stage and successfully made it back to the Pacific Ocean (setting a new space speed record for a crewed vehicle along the way), where they were met by the USS Princeton.

There are those who say that the ascent stage of “Snoopy” (the nickname given to the lunar module) is still up there going round the Sun.  A British search has decided that they are 98% certain that the Earth-crossing asteroid 2018 AV2 is in fact the only crewed space vehicle to still be in orbit without its crew.




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)

May 04 – Launch of “Magellan” on Shuttle Mission STS-30

Happy Star Wars Day.

1886  – on May 4th 1866, asteroid 258 Tyche was discovered by Robert Luther. It is a 650m wide “S” type main belt asteroid, and is possibly a member of the Eunomia family. It was named after the Greek goddess whose Roman equivalent was Fortuna. Her main responsibility was to decide how prosperous a city should be.

1896  –  Asteroid 416 Vaticana was discovered on May 4th, 1896, by Auguste Charlois. It is an S-type main belt asteroid, about 85 km across, and was named after the Vatican Hill (Mons Vaticanvs) in Rome.

1989 – Launch of shuttle mission STS-30 carrying the Magellan probe, aka the Venus Radar Mapper, to be sent on its way to Venus. This was the first ever launch of a spacecraft from a shuttle. Magenta arrived at Venus on August 8th, 1990, and used a high-gain parabolic antenna to allow it to map the Surface through the opaque Venusian atmosphere. The probe burned up in this atmosphere on October 13th, 1994. Being mostly composed of carbon dioxide (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%), both of which are colourless, you might think that seeing the surface from orbit would be a doddle, but it is the presence of clouds of sulphuric acid, blowing around the planet at over 200 mph (about 300 km/h) that pose the problem.


The photograph shows the Venusian volcano Sapas Mons, a monster by Earth standards at over 240 miles wide and nearly a mile high.


April 28 – Oorter Space

We have two birthdays today.

Johann Oskar Backlund was born on April 28th 1846 in Länghem, Sweden, but after university spent his career in firstly Tartu, Estonia (part of Imperial Russia at the time) and then Pulkovi (also Russia). He was a dab hand at celestial mechanics, and became so well known in Russian astronomical circles for his work on comet 2P/Encke that Russian sources sometimes refer to it as Encke-Backlund.

Oskar Backlund
Oskar Backlund


2P/Encke is believed to be the source of the Taurid meteor shower, but Backlund was more interested in the effect it might be having on Mercury, and used the perturbations produced by the motion of the comet to predict the mass of the planet. If I had a copy of the 1961 journal Soviet Physics I might be able to share his results with you (unless they were in Russian, which seems likely).

Jan Oort was also born on this day, in 1900, in Franaker, Friesland (the Netherlands). He was mostly drawn to radio astronomy, and his day job was as a professor at the University of Lieden, under Director Ejnar Hertzsprung. Among Oort’s many career highlights were the discovery of a group of stars outside the Milky Way (the galactic halo), the calculation of how far away and in what direction lies the centre of the galaxy, and of course the idea that comets originate in what is now commonly known as the Oort Cloud, a roughly spherical region of icy planetesimals surrounding the Sun at distances of up to an almost unbelievable 50,000 AU (defining the limits of our home star’s gravitational supremacy).

Jan Oort (image: Nationaal Archief NL Fotocollectie Anefo)
Jan Oort (image: Nationaal Archief NL Fotocollectie Anefo)

1903  –  Discovery of asteroid 509 Iolanda (a.k.a. 190LR) by Max Wolf. Iolanda is an S-type main belt asteroid, and the NASA JPL Small-Body Database Browser gives it a diameter of just under 53km, an absolute magnitude of 8.40, and a rotation period (day) of 12.306 hours.

1928  –  Birth of Eugene Shoemaker, a leading light in the development of astrogeology, but mostly remembered these days as co-discoverer of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which famously collided with Jupiter in 1994.

1999  –  Launch of the ABRIXAS X-Ray Telescope by the German Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt from the Kapustin Yar facility in Russia. The mission lasted approximately three days, thanks to an accident involving an overcharged battery.

2003  –  Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) launched.

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 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 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).