December 04 – Launch of Gemini VII (1965)

We have slightly odd numbering here. Gemini 7 (VII) was launched on December 4th, 1965, after Gemini 5, but before Gemini 6A. Gemini 6 was obviously originally planned to go between 5 and 7, but had to be cancelled and rescheduled with an “A”.

The crew of gemini VII (Lovell, left, and Borman)
The crew of Gemini VII (Lovell, left, and Borman)

The plan for Gemini 7 was to observe the effects of prolonged spaceflight on astronauts. The two-man crew, Frank Borman and James Lovell, circled the globe 206 times during their two week confinement. After 11 days they were joined briefly by Walter Schirra aboard Gemini 6A, and practiced rendezvousing (at closest approach during their extra-atmospheric ballet they were just one foot apart).

Gemini, of course, is the constellation that lies between Cancer and Taurus in the sky (and therefore in the zodiac) and is historically associated with the twin brothers Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux if you prefer the later Roman name). I prefer Polydeuces myself, because the translation is “much sweet wine”, which you just don’t get with “Pollux”. Castor, as any rodentologist will tell you, is Greek for “beaver”.

The Diskouri, in the Museum of Modern Art (image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)
The Diskouri, in the Museum of Modern Art (image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

The twins now immortalized in the heavens were collectively known to the Greeks as the Diskouri, or “sons of Zeus” (the noun Gemini is from Roman mythology). They also had twin half-sisters, even more famous than themselves: Helen (of Troy) and Clytemnestra.

December 02 – Launch of SOHO (1995)

Built in Europe, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was launched on December 2nd, 1995 and, despite being planned as a two year mission, it is still going, with the latest predicted end date being in 2020. It is a joint project between ESA and NASA, built by Matra Marco I Aerospace, and designed to provide data to help predict solar weather, and answer questions about the solar interior, solar wind, and why the corona is so hellishly hot. The mission has been a great success, providing significant insights into such areas as the structure of sunspots, the flow of gases inside the Sun, and the dynamics of the solar wind.

Prominence spotted by SOHO (image: ESA / NASA)
Prominence spotted by SOHO (image: ESA / NASA)

In addition to all this, SOHO has still found time to become history’s greatest ever discoverer of comets, with the total ticking over to an astonishing 3000 on September 13th 2015. Comet number 3000 was spotted by Thai astronomer Worachate Boonplod, part of an amateur army of spotters who betwen them have been responsible for the majority of SOHO discoveries.

The Broad Band X-ray Telescope (BBXRT) was launched today (1990) on board shuttle Columbia flight STS-35. It formed part of the partly-successful “ASTRO-1” payload of four instruments.

In-flight view of BBXRT (image: NASA)
In-flight view of BBXRT (image: NASA)

The mission was somewhat shorter than the previously-mentioned SOHO, as the telescope was attached to the shuttle, and had to go wherever it went (back to Earth).

November 29 – Launch of Mercury-Atlas 5 (1961)

Mercury-Atlas 5 is classed as an unmanned flight, launched from Cape Canaveral on November 29th, 1961. And yes, I suppose that it was technically unmanned, because there were no men on board. But there was an astronaut, and that astronaut was male.

ENOS in his launch position. (Image: NASA)
ENOS in his launch position. (Image: NASA)

Enos, pictured above, was the second chimpanzee to fly into space, and the first to orbit the Earth. The idea behind Enos’ trip was to stage a flight that would be as close as possible to the planned MA-6 launch, but without the less-expendable John Glenn.

Enos survived his odyssey, but it was touch and go. A problem with the environmental controls made it rather warmer than planned in the capsule, and fuel consumption concerns led to the intended three orbits being curtailed at two.

The World’s most traveled chimp lived for just under a year following his triumphant return to Earth, and died of dysentery on November 4th, 1962. It is not known what became of his remains. And if you still think I’m being silly, sentimental and anthropomorphic by suggesting that MA-5 should be called a manned trip, the name Enos (a biblical name, one of the grandchildren of Adam and Eve) means “man”.

November 20 – Launch of Swift (2004)

The Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer was launched on November 20th 2004 by NASA as part of their medium-sized “MIDEX” program.  Now the first thing you’re probably thinking is “why isn’t the name Swift in capital letters?”  The answer is that Swift is not an acronym.  It doesn’t mean anything (except that you’re supposed to think of a small, fast bird).

Swift (image: NASA)
Swift (image: NASA)

If you look at some of the early press releases about Swift, NASA were hopeful that it would last for the duration of its two year mission, and survey over 200 gamma ray bursts (GRBs).  Now, 11 years later, and with over 1000 GRBs under its belt, Swift has exceeded all expectations and is still going strong.

Gamma rays are extremely high frequency emissions formed by the decay of atomic nuclei, and a burst of gamma rays is exactly what it sounds like: in a Universe where most things happen over millions of years, GRBs are astoundingly quick.  Slow ones can take a couple of hours; but the quickest have been and gone in a few milliseconds.  Also, there are only a few every million years in an average galaxy, which you might think would make them hard to spot, but fortunately they are so unbelievably powerful that the energy has no problem travelling the millions or billions of light years between the source and the detectors on board Swift.

One of Swift's collection: GRB 090429B, 13 billion light years away (image: NASA)
One of Swift’s collection: GRB 090429B, 13 billion light years away (image: NASA)

Swift has observed some pretty unusual events over its lifetime, including the most distant GRB ever seen, an x-ray source right in the centre of the galaxy, and a two-week long blast of stellar flares from a red dwarf reckoned to be 12 times hotter than the centre of the Sun.


November 19 – Launch of Shuttle Mission STS-80 (1996)

1996 – Launch of space shuttle Columbia on mission STS-80 (19 days late). At 17 days, 15 hours and 53 minutes this became the longest shuttle mission, and comprised commander Kenneth D Cockrell, pilot Kent V Rominger, and mission specialists F Story Musgrave, Thomas D Jones, and Tamara E Jernigan. Musgrave was on his sixth flight, a record at the time, and became the only person to fly all five shuttles.

Crew of STS-80 (L-R: )
Crew of STS-80 (L-R: Rominger, Jernigan, Musgrave, Jones, Cockrell)

The 19 day tardiness mentioned above was caused by a number of factors. Firstly STS-79 had been held up, Then a hurricane warning delayed work on the boosters. An issue with nozzles dropped it from Nov 4th to 8th, and a rescheduled commercial launch didn’t help matters. All this gave the weather time to regroup, causing one final delay. We are still a long way from being able to repel a Borg attack.

We have a cubewano today! It is Kuiper-belt object 19521 Chaos, which was discovered by the Deep Ecliptic Survey on November 19th, 1998. Chaos is about 600 km in diameter, and may well be a dwarf planet, not much smaller than Ixion and Varuna. It orbits between a perihelion of about 40.9 AU and an aphelion of just under 50.6 AU, and spends more than 300 Earth years completing a single orbit of the Sun (or 1 Chaotic year, obviously).

November 18 – Birth of Alan Shepard (1923)

Rear Admiral Alan B Shepard was born in East Derry, New Hampshire, on November 18th, 1923. He served with the US Navy during World War II, and became a test pilot before being selected as one of the “Mercury Seven”, NASA’s original group of astronauts, who’s members went on to fly in all four US manned space programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and shuttle). Shepard was the only one of the seven to walk on the Moon (Apollo 14), and also holds the records for being the oldest person to do so, and for the longest stay on the lunar surface (33 hours).

Alan "Al" Shepard (image credit: NASA)
Alan Shepard (image credit: NASA)

Al Shepard only went into space twice. His first journey was an extremely brief quarter of an hour, aboard the Mercury craft Freedom 7, on May 5th, 1967, with his second being the substantially longer Apollo 14 mentioned previously (January 31st to February 9th, 1971).  On his first trip he became the first American in space, but not quite the first human, having been beaten by Russia’s Yuri Gagarin by just over three weeks.

Al Shepard died on July 21st, 1998.

The launch of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was on this day in 1989 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. COBE was also known as Explorer 66, part of the United States’ apparently never-ending Explorer series of satellites that has been running since 1958.

2013  –  Launch of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN Mission.  After a journey of 442 million miles, completed in just under ten months, MAVEN was inserted into orbit around Mars on September 21st 2014.  The goal of the mission was to find out how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost.


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.


November 12 – Launch of Discoverer 17 (1960)

The best that can be said about Discoverer 17 (aka Corona 9012) is that it wasn’t a complete failure.  It was launched on November 12th 1960, from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.  Low Earth orbit was attained, and the plan was to shoot a roll of high resolution black and white 70mm film showing how quickly the Soviet Union were developing their long range ballistic missile capability, then return it to Earth aboard the “satellite recovery vehicle” (SRV).  Unfortunately, the mission suffered from premature separation of the SRV, resulting in only a couple of feet of unused film being returned to Earth.  The rest of Discoverer 17 remained in orbit until 29th December, at which point it was burnt up on reentry.

A Discoverer type recovery vehicle (also known as a "bucket"). Image credit: unknown, but from somewhere within the US Government).
A Discoverer type recovery vehicle (also known as a “bucket”). (Image credit: unknown, but from somewhere within the US Government).

There was also a biological research aspect to Discoverer 17 (the cover story), involving a study of the effect on human beings of leaving the atmosphere (at that time no-one had yet got into space).  This was the part of the mission that didn’t fail, as insight was gained on the effect of massive doses of radiation on human tissue.  (And yet they still found volunteers to go up there.)

1862  ⇒  Discovery of asteroid 77 Frigga by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters.  This M-type main belt asteroid is named after the Norse goddess Frigg, wife of Odin.

1879  ⇒  Discovery by Johann Palisa of the F-type asteroid 210 Isabella.  F-types are a sub-division of the carbocaceous “C” group.  They are similar to B-types, but are suspected to lack hydrated minerals.

November 11 – Launch of Gemini XII (1966)

The Gemini XII spacecraft, with help from a Titan-II launch vehicle, lifted off from Cape Canaveral “Launch Complex 19” (LC-19) on the evening of November 11th, 1966.

The two-man crew were Jim Lovell and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.  The name Buzz, apparently, came from the inability of one of his sisters to pronounce the word “brother”. Their mission lasted for 3 days, 22 hours and 34 minutes, allowing the craft to make 59 orbits of the Earth, and giving Aldrin time to pop outside for three EVAs (one a day).

The crew of Gemini XII onboard USS Wasp. (Image credit: NASA)

This was the final manned Gemini flight; the craft can currently be seen at the Alder Planetarium, Chicago.  It was also the final flight to launch from LC-19.

November 09 – Launch of Apollo 4 (1967)

Today I have a good excuse (as if one were needed) to show a photograph of a Saturn V, as it marks the anniversary of the launch by NASA, in 1967, of Apollo 4, the first “all-up” (everything in working condition) test of the Saturn V launch vehicle. Launch was at 7am, and the pointy end of the 363 foot (110 m) miracle of 1960’s engineering was parked into a 100 mile high orbit for two trips around the Earth, before the command module was splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, close to Midway Island.

Apollo 4 launch (image credit: NASA)
Apollo 4 launch (image credit: NASA)

The unmanned mission was deemed to have been successful, and involved placing the third stage, the S-IVB (pronounced “ess four bee”) and the CSM (Command/Service Module) into orbit, and simulating a return to Earth from a Moon mission.

Apollo IV was the first flight of NASA’s manned mooned mission after the Apollo I fatalities. There were unmanned flights between the two, but they have failed to attain the name Apollo II or III.