January 21 – Discovery of Asteroid 356 Liguria (1893)

Auguste Charlois strikes again! On January 21st, 1893, one day after 355 Gabriella (see yesterday’s blog) he discovered 356 Liguria, another large main belt asteroid (about 155 km in diameter).

Genoa (picture credit: me!)
Genoa (picture credit: me!)

The name of today’s asteroid refers to the coastal region of Italy of which Genoa is the capital. I hold Genoa in particularly high esteem as the home of the best ice cream I ever tasted.

1960  –  Spacecraft LJ-1B launched carrying the Rhesus monkey “Miss Sam” to a height of eight miles. Miss Sam was in a more fortunate position than many early “astronauts”, in that her flight was to test emergency abort and recovery procedures, so getting her back alive was top priority.

January 20 – Discovery of Asteroid 355 Gabriella (1893)

Today’s asteroid, 355 Gabriella, was discovered on January 20th, 1893, by Auguste Charlois, and is yet another nod to the Flammarion family. It is a fairly ordinary main belt asteroid, and is named for Gabrielle Renaudot Flammarion, general secretary of the Société Astronomique de France, and wife of Camille Flammarion, who we have also met in these pages.

Gabrielle Flammarion
Gabrielle Flammarion

Gabrielle was a bit of a Mars buff, and now has a crater on the red planet named in her honour.


January 18 – Asteroid 221 Eos

221 Eos is a K class (more about this in a minute) main belt asteroid discovered by Johann Palisa on January 18th 1882. It’s about 100 km wide, weighs in at a healthy six million trillion tonnes (give or take a few hundred thousand) and is quite dim at magnitude 7.67.

Eos lends its name to an extensive family of asteroids, all sharing roughly similar orbits, and all thought to have originated from an almighty collision some time in the distant past, which the latest best guesses put at around a billion years ago. About 300 members of the family are known, all being similar to S-types, but not identical, so they get their own category, the aforementioned K-type.


Eos was named after the Greek goddess of the dawn, shown above in her winged chariot.  She was the sister of Helios (Sun) and Selene (Moon) and it was her job to open up heaven in the morning so that Helios could do his thing.

Also today, asteroid 468 Lina, a member of the Themis family, was discovered today in 1901 by Max Wolf and named after the family housemaid. It’s probably best if I don’t speculate as to why that might be.


January 17 – Asteroid 354 Eleonora

Main-belt asteroid 354 Eleonora was discovered on this day in 1893 by Auguste Charlois.  It’s a stony (S-type) asteroid of approximately 154 km across, rotating with a period of about thirteen and a half hours.  It can reach a magnitude of +9.3 at opposition.

Stony asteroids like Eleonora can often be shown by spectroscopic studies to contain olivine, a magnesium iron silicate that becomes known as peridot when of sufficient quality to be cut into a gem (sometimes being mistaken for emerald) and pyroxenes, a large group of mineral found almost everywhere.   The upper mantle of the Earth is composed mainly of olivine and pyroxene.

Eleonora is one of those titillating asteroids whose name is generally thought to be of unknown origin.  But somebody must have written it down somewhere; it’s just a matter of finding it.  There was, as it happens, a very famous Eleonora around at the time of the discovery:  Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress, was busy making a name for herself on the stages of the world, and would have been well known to Charlois.  She’s going down as a definite “maybe”.

Eleonora Duse, actress.
Eleonora Duse, actress.


January 13 – Discovery of asteroid 171 Ophelia (1877)

January 13th, 1877 marks the dicovery of asteroid 171 Ophelia, a member of the carbonaceous (C-type) Themis family, by Alphonse Borrelly. It was one of three he discovered that year, and was named after the daughter of Polonius in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

The Themistians are one of the larger asteroid families, with close to 5000 members (still well short of the largest families though; the biggest two are the Vestians, numbering 15,000+, and the Nysians, with over 19,000 members). They orbit in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt, and are a collisional family, thought to have formed from the violent coming together of two bodies at some time in the distant past.

Ophelia (1894) by Waterhouse
Ophelia (1894) by Waterhouse

The accompanying illustration is by J W Waterhouse, and shows Shakespeare’s tragic heroine just before her death (she drowns, falling from a tree when a bough breaks).

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

January 13 – Discovery of Asteroid 141 Lumen (1876)

1876 – Discovery of C-type main belt asteroid 141 Lumen by Paul-Pierre Henry, or possibly his brother Prosper. This one was credited to Paul-Pierre, but in keeping with their credit sharing philosophy, the brothers never revealed which one of them actually made the find. Even while they were alive, it was impossible for astronomical journals to attach one brother to a specific discovery with any level of accuracy greater than 50%, so we have no chance now. As with several other of the asteroid discoveries of the Henry brothers, it borrows its name from a book by Camille Flammarion, Lumen: Récits de l’infini.

Cover of
Cover of “Lumen: Récits de l’infini”

You can download Lumen for free these days if you like, but its a bit weird.

141 Lumen is about 130km wide, and shares orbital characteristics with the Eunomia family of asteroids, but is defined as an “interloper”, because of its composition (Lumen is carbonaceous, whereas Eunomians are stony).

January 10 – Discovery of Asteroid 170 Maria (1877)

Asteroid 170 Maria was discovered on January 10th 1877 by Henri Joseph Perrotin (1845-1904).  It is an S-type asteroid in the main belt, is 44.3 km in diameter, and rotates every 13.14 hours.

Maria was named after the sister of Antonio Abetti (1846-1928), the Italian astronomer and director of the Arcetri Observatory, who worked out its orbit.

Antonio Abetti (I can't find a photograph of his sister).
Antonio Abetti (I can’t find a photograph of his sister).

Maria is the head of a small family of similarly inclined asteroids orbiting between 2.5 and 2.7 AU from the Sun.

1894   –   Asteroid 381 Myrrha discovered by Auguste Charlois, and named after the mother of Adonis.

1936   –   American astronomer and co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation, Robert Woodrow Wilson born in Houston, Texas.  Wilson was awarded (jointly with Pyotr Kapitsa and Arno Penzias) the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1978, for the discovery.

1969   –   Launch of the Venera 6 spacecraft by the USSR, five days after Verera 5.  The mission to Venus was a success, with 51 minutes of data regarding the Venusian atmosphere being returned while the craft descended to the surface by parachute, before being destroyed by that same atmosphere.

2002   –   Discovery of classical Kuiper Belt object 2002 AW197 by six astronomers using observations from Mauna Kea and Palomar (deciding where and by whom these things were discovered was a lot easier in the 19th century when they were usually discovered by one man in Austria or France).  2002 AW197 might be a dwarf planet, but this has yet to be confirmed.


January 09 – Asteroid 464 Megaira (1901)

Asteroid 464 Megaira (originally designated as 1901 FV) was discovered on January 9th 1901 by Max Wolf (1863-1932), a pioneer of astrophotography, and a man with an enormous 248 asteroid discoveries to his name. It is approximately 80 km in diameter, and was the first minor planet to be discovered in 1901. Only 17 asteroids were discovered in total in 1901, illustrating how much harder it was back then. By 1921 the annual haul had just managed crawled up to 27, but in the 2000’s asteroids are being discovered at rates of several thousand a year.

The name of today’s rock comes from the Greek Megaera, one of the three Eumenides (“Furies”), who were born out of the blood of Uranus when Cronos castrated him. Her name means “the jealous one”.

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - 1862
The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau – 1862

Her sisters had similarly jolly names: Tisiphone (“Avenging Murder”) and Alecto (“Unceasing Anger”). It was considered unlucky to mention their name in Greek society, so they often went by ironic pseudonyms (Euripides refers to them as the “Kindly Ones”).

Wolf was on a roll this month and went on to name the next two asteroids he discovered after the remaining Eumenides (465 Alekto, discovered on Jan 13th 1901, and 466 Tisiphone, 4 days later).

January 08 – Asteroid 379 Huenna

Asteroid 379 Huenna was discovered on the 8th of January 1894 by August Charlois, and is a carbonaceous C-type asteroid, a member of the Themis or Themistian family in the outer reaches of the asteroid belt. In August 2003 it was discovered that Huenna has a small (7 km wide) satellite. It remains unnamed at present, except for its official designation S 2003 (379) 1.

Huenna was named after the island of Ven (or Hven in older Danish), the site of two observatories, Uraniborg and Stjerneborg, built by Tycho Brahe, and now a popular tourist destination. Uraniborg was built around 1580 and named after Urania, the muse of astronomy. It was, apparently, the last observatory to be built without a telescope as its main observing instrument. Stjerneborg was built partly underground (I’m sure there was a good reason) and means “star castle”.

The brass mural quadrant at Uraniborg.
The brass mural quadrant at Uraniborg.

The picture above shows the large brass mural “quadrant” attached to the observatory wall at Uraniborg, a three-man instrument used to measure the positions of celestial objects. And if you were looking for Quadrantid meteors last week you will probably remember that their radiant is in the vicinity of the now defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis.
380 Fiducia, another C-type asteroid, was also discovered by Charlois on January 8th 1894. It was named after the Latin word for “confidence”.

1642 – Death of Galileo.

1942 – Birth of Stephen Hawking.

2002 – Discovery of exoplanet Iota Draconis b.

January 07 – Discovery of Asteroid 410 Chloris (1896)

Asteroid 410 Chloris was discovered on January 7th 1896 by Auguste Charlois.  It’s a large, C-type, main-belt asteroid of approximately 115 km diameter, and lends its name to a family of similar bodies.

The Chloris family contains an unknown number of members, obviously, because we can never be sure they’ve all been found.  But even if we only consider those asteroids we know about, there is still some uncertainty surrounding how many asteroids there are in the family, depending on which method you use to determine whether a particular asteroid should be included or not.  For example, using hierarchical clustering, the family has 21 members, but using wavelet analysis, there are 27.  One day in the distant future, when I lose the will to live, I’ll try to explain these methods.  In the meantime, here are the facts and figures.

Aphelion 3.376 AU
Perihelion 2.082 AU
Orbital period 4.51 years
orbital speed 18.03 km/second
Semi-major axis 2.729 AU
Eccentricity 0.237
Inclination 10.921°
Longitude of ascending node 97.251°

The name Chloris comes from a Greek work meaning something along the lines of pale greenish (think “chlorophyll”).  There are several mythological characters with the name, but the one apparently invoked in this case was one of the Niobids, the fourteen children of Niobe and Amphion, most famous for being nearly all killed by Apollo and Artemis.  Chloris had been born with the name Meliboea, but was turned permanently palid by the aforementioned ordeal (which she survived) and changed her name to something suitably pale and interesting.

Artemis and Apollo Killing the Niobids
Artemis and Apollo Killing the Niobids

The photograph (above) shows a detail from a Roman sarcophagus found near the Via Appia in Rome in 1824, and now housed in the Glyptothek in Munich, a museum built specifically to house the Greek and Roman sculptures of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.

Aside:  I can’t let this post go by without directing you to an exceptional recording by Susan Graham and Roger Vignoles of À Chloris, one of my favourite songs by the Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn.  CLICK HERE first to hear it, they buy the album (“La Belle Epoque”, Sony, SK60168).  I apologise in advance for the adverts YouTube will fire your way.