February 09 – Apollo 14 Splashdown

We have a collection of shorts today, starting on February 9th 1882 with the possibly C-type, 55km wide, main belt asteroid 222 Lucia, discovered by Johann Palisa.  Lucia is a Themistian asteroid, one of a group sharing orbital properties with 22 Themis. It was named after the daughter of the Arctic explorer and president of the Austrian Geographical Society, Count Johann Nepomuk (Hans) Wilczek 02/12/1837 – 27/01/1922).

On this day in 1905, 558 Carmen was discovered by Max Wolf.  It is an M type main belt asteroid of about 59km diameter.

And now, in the interests of détente, we have one item each from either side of the iron curtain in the same year, 1971, starting with the launch of Cosmos (or Kosmos) 394 by the USSR. Launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the north west of Russia into a low Earth orbit of 522 km (324 miles) Kosmos 394 (or 1971-010A if you prefer) was part of the testing programme for Soviet anti-weapons systems. As (i) it played the role of a target, and (ii) the test was a success, I wouldn’t bother trying to find it I the night sky.

February 9th, 1971 also saw the splashdown of Apollo 14, containing Alan Shepherd, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, in the South Pacific Ocean. Roosa had worked, in a pre-NASA life, as a forestry smokejumper (guys who were parachuted into inaccessible areas to fight wildfires). As a result, he was thought the ideal candidate to take 500 seeds of several species of tree into lunar orbit.

Colonel Stuart A "Stu" Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)
Colonel Stuart A “Stu” Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)

On their return to Earth the seeds were germinated, and the resulting Moon trees were planted across the United States (they were also sent to Italy, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland).

February 08 – Discovery of 183 Istria (1878) and others

Asteroid 283 Emma was spotted by Auguste Charlois on this very day in 1889. It’s a large, potato-shaped main-belt asteroid about 150 to 160km wide (opinions vary). Emma has a tiny companion, as yet unnamed, and so going by the official designation S/2003 (283) 1, of about 10km diameter. Why the name Emma was chosen remains a mystery.

Exactly eleven years and one hundred discoveries earlier we have S-type asteroid 183 Istria, discovered on February 8th 1878 by Johann Palisa from his observatory at the city of Pula (on the Istrian peninsula). Palisa was Austrian, and at that time Istria was part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire.

Pula, Istria.
Pula, Istria.

Asteroid Istria is about 35km in diameter, and has an absolute magnitude of about 9.6. It takes 1703 Earth days to make one journey around the Sun, rotating once in just under 12 hours as it does so.

1907 Asteroid 636 Erika discovered by Joel Hastings Metcalf, American astronomer, optical wizard and Unitarian minister. Erika is a fairly ordinary size for the main belt, at about 74km diameter.

1974 The last Skylab crew (Gerrard P Carr, William R Pogue and Edward G Gibson) returns to Earth after their 84-day mission. The estimated cost of keeping an astronaut on Skylab is scary: taking into account the total overall cost of the project, it was $20m per astronaut per day. (Figure is from “Cost of Piloted US Space Programs” , Claude Lafleur, Space Review, 08-03-2010.)

February 07 – Al Worden

Today is the 87th birthday of Alfred (Al) Worden, a member of one of humankind’s most exclusive clubs.  You can probably tell which club I’m talking about by glancing at the photograph.  Worden was born in Jackson, Michigan in 1932, and after graduating from the US Military Academy in 1955 he spent some time as an instructor, pilot and armaments officer with the USAF, and even spent some time at Farnborough, England (quick – find a Union Jack to wave!) before being selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1966.  He was part of the support crew for Apollo 9, and back-up pilot for Apollo 12, before hitting the big time with Apollo 15.

Alfred Merrill Worden (image: NASA)
Alfred Merrill Worden (image: NASA)

Worden served as command module pilot on that particular mission, the fourth manned lunar landing.  He spent 295 hours and 11 minutes in space, of which 38 minutes were spent outside the command module, retrieving film cassettes and generally making sure everything was still there.   He holds the record for once being “the most isolated human being” (he was 2,234 miles 1,330 yards from his companions while they were on the surface).

You can read more about what Al is up to these days on his website,  www.alworden.com.

Happy Birthday Al.

It’s a litle worrying that of the 24 astronauts who flew to the Moon as part of the Apollo program, only 12 survive, and the youngest of those, Ken Mattingly, is 83. If we don’t get our collective act together soon, there will be no humans alive who have visited our nearest neighbour.


1824  ⇒  Birth of English astronomer William Huggins, spectroscopy pioneer. Huggins was the first person to distinguish between nebulae and galaxies (their spectra are different).

1878  ⇒  Asteroid 182 Elsa discovered by Johann Palisa, and probably named after the daughter of the Duke of Brabant, a character from the German Arthurian legend of Lohengrin. Elsa (the asteroid) is an S-type of uncertain diameter. Analysis of variations in the amount of light reflected towards us from her surface shows a fairly slow rotation (a little over 80 hours) and indicates an elongated shape.

1896  ⇒  Asteroid 415 Palatia discovered by Max Wolf. It is around 76 km in diameter and is unusually named after the “Electorate of the Palatinate”, a fragmented territory of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany.

1977    Launch of the Soyuz 24 mission to the Salyut 5 Space Station. The crew of Commander Viktor Gorbatko and Flight Engineer Yuri Glazkov spent eighteen days in space, reactivating the station after a problem with toxic fumes had caused the previous crew to leave in a hurry . Both cosmonauts were awarded “Hero of the Soviet Union” and the “Order of Lenin”. Gorbatko later went on to become a science fiction author.


February 06 – Asteroid 212 Medea

Asteroid 212 Medea was discovered from Pula (or Pola) in Croatia by Johann Palisa on February 6th 1880.  It’s another big main-belter, about 144 km (90 miles) across, with, in the absence of much else to say about it, the following orbital characteristics, plucked from the JPL Small Body Database:

Epoch 27 April 2019
Aphelion 3.464 AU
Perihelion 2.804 AU
Semi-Major Axis 3.124 AU
Eccentricity 0.103
Orbital Period 5.49 years
Average Orbital Speed 16.88 km/s
Inclination 4.265°
Longitude of Ascending Node 313.059°
Argument of Perihelion 102.928°
Mean Anomaly 205.318°

Medea is our second Greek tragedy in two days.  This one is by Euripides (c. 484 to 406 BC), the most modern of the “big three” Athenian dramatists.  He was about fifty when he wrote it, and it was perhaps a little too much for his audience, who placed it last in the City Dionysia of 431 BC, behind Sophocles in second, and Euphorion (son of the more famous Aeschylus) who won.

Jason & Medea (Carle van Loo, 1705-65)
Jason & Medea (Carle van Loo, 1705-65)

Medea was the wife of Jason (of “and the Argonauts” fame).  She obviously had a sharp temper, shown most vividly by her killing her own children to spite Jason after he’d had a fling with the daughter of the King of Corinth.

February 05 – Discovery of Asteroid 129 Antigone (1873)

Asteroid 129 Antigone was discovered on February 5th, 1873 by C H F Peters. It’s a fairly regularly shaped body of about 120 km across, and is composed of a nickel-iron mix, putting it firmly in the metallic M class, and leading scientific types to conclude that it is probably the remains of the core of a planetesimal, destroyed at some point in the dim and distant past.

Antigone, as you know, was the daughter of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, and Jocasta, his queen (and mother). Basically, after Oedipus’ death, Antigone upsets King Creon, Oedipus’ predecessor,  who had taken the opportunity to rule Thebes again after Oedipus’ sons had fallen out with one another in a big way.  The upset comes about as a result of Antigone trying to arrange a decent burial for her brother Polynices, who was regarded as a traitor.  Long story short: she hangs herself, and her beau (Creon’s son Hæmon) kills himself in his grief.

Oedipus and Antigone (Aleksander Kokular)
Oedipus and Antigone (Aleksander Kokular)

The depiction of Oedipus and Antigone above is by the amazingly-named Aleksander Kokular (1793 – 1846) a Polish painter and educator, and co-founder of the Warsaw School of Fine Arts.  He was well-known for his mythological (as you can see) and religious works.

The story of Antigone with which most of us are familiar comes from Sophocles’ three Theban Plays (there are three of them, but they’re not a trilogy).  I can`t recommend the Theban Plays highly enough.  I consider Sophocles to be way above Aeschylus and Euripides when it comes to tales of misery and woe.  Euripides did actually write an Antigone himself; the text is lost, but it’s known that tragedy is averted in this version by divine intervention.  That’s not what I want!  It’s supposed to be a tragedy!  Make it tragic!
And I’m going to get really nerdy now, and say try to get the E F Watling translation.  Robert Fagles is fine, but Watling is my preference.

A Classic.
A Classic.

Today’s second photograph is the front cover of my latest copy of the Theban Plays (Penguin Classics).  It shows Oedipus dressed as a traveller (in other words wearing a hat and carrying a staff) pondering the riddle of the Sphinx.

1877  –  S-type asteroid 172 Baucis discovered by Alphonse Borrelly, and named after a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

1987  –  Japanese X-Ray satellite Ginga (otherwise known as Astro-C) was launched.  It sounds like an acronym, but it isn’t.  It’s Japanese for “galaxy”.


2002  –  The Reuvan Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (HESSI, or RHESSI) was launched to study solar flares, with a view to working out why they occur, and how so much energy can be released in such a short time.  Reuvan Ramaty, by the way, was an expert in cosmic rays, and one of the original members of the HESSI team.  Unfortunately he died on April 8th, 2001, less than a year before launch.


February 04 – Discovery of Asteroid 52 Europa (1858)

February 4th 1858  marks the discovery, by Hermann Goldschmidt, of asteroid 52 Europa.  Europa is approximately 315km in diameter, making it the sixth largest asteroid, and is named after a mythical Phoenician woman with whom Zeus had a fling (for some reason he had decided that taking the form of a white bull was a good idea for this particular wooing, and it worked).  Europa, believe it or not, gave her name to Europe.

"The Abduction of Europa" (Rembrandt)
“The Abduction of Europa” (Rembrandt)

The asteroid Europa is the second largest of the C-type asteroids.  C-types are the most common asteroids, accounting for about three quarters of all those known.  They are carbonaceous, and difficult to spot because of their dark colour.  Spectrographic studies of this particular one in the 1990s by the University of Texas have found evidence of the presence of olivines and pyroxenes.

1960   ⇒   Launch of Discoverer 9.  There isn’t much to say about this one, as it failed to reach orbit following a premature 1st stage cut-off.  It had been intended as a low resolution photo surveillance satellite, and was launched from Vandeburg Air Force Base by the USAF.  The aim was to replace the U2 spyplanes and gather photographic evidence of how quickly the Soviet Union was producing ballistic missiles and long-range bombers.

1961   ⇒   Launch of Sputnik 7.  Possibly the first Soviet attempt to launch a probe to Venus, or then again possibly just a tester for Sputnik 8.  Either way, Sputnik 7 (14,290 lb) was launched by an A2e launch vehicle (the “A” refers to the core Vostok launch vehicle, with “2″  denoting an extra 2-engined third stage and “e” meaning it carried an escape capsule) and came quickly back down from orbit on Feb 25.

1888   ⇒   Main belt asteroid 272 Antonia discovered by Auguste Charlois.

1906   ⇒   Birth of Clyde Tombaugh, American astronomer, discoverer of Pluto.


February 03 – Luna 9 lands on the Moon

Feb 3rd is a big day in spaceflight history, because on this day in 1966, the Soviet Union successfully soft-landed  Luna 9 onto the Moon, beating the USA by just over 4 months, and no doubt causing wide grins and double vodkas all round in Moscow.

Luna 9 was launched from the world’s oldest space centre at Tyuratum in Khazakstan.  The centre is still being used by the Russians, although today they have to lease it from the Khazak government (how are the mighty fallen).

Luna 9
Luna 9

The flight to the moon took 79 hours, after which the main spacecraft ejected a small (2 foot diameter) capsule weighing 220 lb (100 kg) which, thanks to the ingenious use of retro rockets, airbags, outrigger engines and a 16 foot long probe which told the engines to cut out when it touched the surface, hit the Moon at a sedate 14 mph, and only needed to bounce a few times before righting itself (it was weighted in such a way as to come to rest the right way up).  The four “petals” covering the top half of the craft then opened up and became stabilizing legs (as in the photo of the still futuristic-looking-after-all-these-years Luna 9, above).   Landing occurred in the Oceanus Procellarum at 9.45 PM Moscow time.

Three panaoramic photographs were transmitted back to Earth over a three day period.   They were picked up by Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, and decoded thanks to a receiver provided by the Daily Express newspaper (see below).

Photograph of the Moon from Luna 9
Photograph of the Moon from Luna 9

2008   ⇒   On this day in 2008 the extrasolar planet Corot-3b was discovered in the constellation of Aquilla by the French-led COnvection ROtation et Transits planétairesmission using the transit method.

1921   ⇒   Happy birthday Ralph Asher Apher, cosmologist, born today in Washington DC.  A big name in the world of big bang nucleosynthesis, which sounds like heavy stuff, and is, as it describes how heavier elements would be created in the primordial universe).


February 02 – Discovery of asteroid 181 Eucharis (1878)

Here’s a name you won’t see very often in these pages: Pablo Cottenot.  On February 2nd 1878 this French astronomer made his one and only asteroid discovery from the observatory at Marseilles.  The asteroid was 181 Eucharis, a large S-type of 106 km diameter, with a slower than average rotation period of just over 52 hours.  It’s proving difficult to find much out about Cottenot, but some sources cite the fact that he was dumb as having a limiting effect on his astronomical career.

"The Farewell of Telemachus & Eucharis" by David (J Paul Getty Museum)
“The Farewell of Telemachus & Eucharis” by David (J Paul Getty Museum)

Eucharis, despite having all the hallmarks of a Greek mythological character (see the painting above) doesn’t actually appear in the classics.  She is a character in  in François Fénelon’s 1699 novel Les Aventures de Télémaque.

1910   ⇒   Discovery of asteroid 330 Adalberta, by Max Wolf.


February 01 – Columbia

One event will forever be linked to this date in spaceflight history.  Feb 1st 2003 was the day the space shuttle Columbia, gliding in to conclude 16 day mission STS-107, broke up during re-entry, the result of damage caused by the breaking off of a piece of insulation foam from the external tank during launch.  All seven crew members were killed, and debris was scattered over a large area of Texas and Louisiana.  There’s been plenty of discussion about this tragedy ever since, so I won’t be commenting further.

Official STS-107 Crew Photo (image: NASA)
Official STS-107 Crew Photo (image: NASA)

The crew were (L-R in the photo above):  David M Brown, Rick D Husband (commander), Laurel B Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P Anderson, William C McCool (pilot), and Ilan Ramon.

January 31 – Launch of Luna 9 (1966)

Luna 9, launched today in 1966, was the first spacecraft to soft land (in other words, survive landing) on the Moon.

Replica of Luna 9

Launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan, a three day journey ended with the use of a “landing bag” to soften the bouncing during the 14 mph impact.

Artist’s impression of Luna 9 on the surface of the Moon

On landing, the four petals visible in the photograph opened up to increase surface stability, and Luna 9 started to take pictures and monitor radiation. Signals from the lander were picked up by the Jodrell Bank radio telescope facility in Cheshire. Opinions divided on whether this was a deliberate act by the USSR to make sure the West knew what they had achieved. Contact with the craft ceased on February 6th.

Twenty-four spacecraft managed to get the name “Luna”. Plenty more were launched, but only those that managed to get as far as the Moon could join the club. It didn’t matter if you crashed into it or sailed straight past, making the distance was enough.