September 13 – Babcock

Horace Welcome Babcock (fantastic name), astronomer and inventor, was born today in 1912, son of solar specialist Harold D Babcock.  Babcock junior was the chap who realised that changing the shape of mirrors can be used to reduce the distorting effect of turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere on light from distant objects (called adaptive optics). Unfortunately he made this discovery in the 1950s, roughly 40 years before the technology to actually do it became available.

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Asteroid 12 Victoria, named after the Roman goddess of Victory (and possibly the queen of the same name) was spotted by John Russell Hind on September 13th 1850.  It’s an S-type, which you will recall are the stony asteroids, the second most common group, most of whom are congregated in the inner main belt.  Victoria has an apparent magnitude varying between 8.7 and 12.8, suggesting she is either elongated or binary.

Victoria the goddess was very important to the Romans (much more than her predecessor Nike had been to the Greeks).  I’m guessing this had something to do with her rôle in deciding who would be victorious in battle.

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Asteroid 104 Klymene is a Themistian asteroid, discovered by J C Watson on September 13th 1868. The Themistians are a family of C-type asteroids, named after 24 Themis (and including 62 Erato, coming up tomorrow).

Klymene and Hera

Klymene and Hera

The name Klymene (or Clymene) crops up quite a few times in Greek mythology, but one of them, an attendant to Hera, stands out in my mind as being the most likely candidate for today’s rock, when you consider that the asteroid named immediately before this one was 103 Hera. This particular Klymene was an Oceanid (daughter of Oceanus) and you can see her, with Hera, in today’s picture, a detail of a depiction of the Judgement of Paris from the Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhle.

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December 16 – Asteroid 351 Yrsa

Asteroid 351 Yrsa was discovered today in 1892 by Max Wolf.  There isn’t a great deal to say about it:  it’s in the main belt, and is about 40 km across.  It is thought to have been named after the wife of King Eadgils of Swedish legend.  her father, Helghe, who had only had a brief fling with her mother, visited the region where she lived years later and, not knowing she was his daughter, got her in the family way, as they say.   Unlike the average Greek god, who would have thought nothing of it, he did the decent thing and killed himself upon discovering the truth.

Lithograph depicting Yrsa

Lithograph depicting Yrsa

Max Wolf was a great friend of today’s birthday boy, Edward Emerson (E.E.Barnard, namesake of Barnard’s Star, one of the most closely observed objects in the Galaxy.  Barnard was mainly a prolific comet finder, discovering 17 in all (15 solo, and 2 co-discoveries), but he’s always going to be associated with the one star in my mind, because it was, and indeed may still be for all I know, the intended target of Project Daedelus, the mind-bogglingly ambitious unmanned interstellar mission proposed by the British Interplanetary Society.  When I was an impressionable teenager in the 1970’s, Daedelus seemed likely to happen “any year now”.  Unfortunately, 30 years later, they still haven’t quite got around to working out how to get the necessary helium-3 fuel back from Jupiter in order to get it to work, and I suspect that the cost in today’s money of a nuclear-powered spaceship bigger than a Saturn 5 and built in orbit would be rather more expensive than gold-plating the Isle of Wight or  buying Australia and Canada back.

E E Barnard

E E Barnard



December 14 – Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe was born today in 1546 in Denmark. As the child of a wealthy family (he was born in a castle) he was well placed to receive a good education, and took up astronomy while studying law.

Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)

Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)

Tycho made several leaps of the imagination, including the development of his own model of the solar system, which he nearly got right. He correctly deduced that the Moon orbits the Earth, and that the planets orbit the Sun. unfortunately he also decided that the Sun must orbit the earth; an easy mistake to make I suppose at that time, if you spend your entire life seeing it cross the sky thousands of times in front of your very eyes.

Tycho was also the first person to decide that novae (they weren’t called that at the time) originated further away than the Moon. The popular view was that the stars were fixed and unchanging, and anything that appeared in the sky had  to be closer than them. But Tycho noticed that a bright new star in Cassiopeia (now called SN1572) did not move against the background stars, and so must be farther away than all the objects that did. It sounds fairly reasonable to us, but in the 16th century the night sky was anything but obvious.

2009 – Launch of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) by NASA, on a mission  to map 99% of the sky. So far, it has found more than 33,000 asteroids and comets, over 200 Near-Earth Asteroids (including 43 potentially hazardous ones), the most luminous galaxy in the known universe, and numerous brown dwarfs.

2013  –  the Chinese Chang’E 3 mission lands on the Moon.

The Chang'E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)

The Chang’E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)



December 09 – Patrick Moore

There’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t already been said a hundred times or more about this chap, but it’s four years today since the passing, at the age of 89, of Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore CBE, FRS, FRAS, singleton, leg spinner, xylophonist (if that’s the right word), RAF veteran, composer, cat lover, EEC hater, star of The GoodiesThe Morecambe and Wise Show and GamesMaster, general legend, and best all-round entertainer since Daffy Duck.  And it appears from the photograph that he also may have owned a telescope.

Patrick Moore (image credit: unknown).

Patrick Moore (image credit: unknown).

I’m not sure where I got that signed photograph from, but it lives inside my copy of Mrs Moore in Space, by Patrick’s mother, Gertrude.

I briefly met him a few times, donkey’s years ago: two of these were at speeches he was giving in the environs of North Staffordshire and South Cheshire, where I was restricted to standing in line waiting for an autograph, and twice were a little more informal at book signings I was involved with in my previous life as a bookseller.  I’d like to say how many books Patrick Moore wrote, but I’m not entirely sure they can be easily counted, as they stretch over such a long period, and had such wildly varied life spans.

To end on a sour note: it’s pantomime season, so boos and hisses to Macmillan publishers, who decided in 2016 to cease publication of “Patrick Moore’s Yearbook of Astronomy”.  Remind me to never buy any of their books again.

1892  ⇒  Discovery of the large main belt asteroid 349 Dembowska by French astronomer Auguste Charlois.  It was named in honour of the Italian astronomer Baron Ercole Dembowski, a specialist in double stars (and if the name sounds less than Italian, it’s because his father was a Polish general).  349 Dembowska is about 140 km wide, and is one of the brightest of the large asteroids.  It is classified as R-type, characterised by spectral lines showing the presence of olivine and pyroxene (the main constituents of the Earth’s mantle), and possibly plagioclase feldspars.


December 06 – Pioneer 3

Launched from Cape Canaveral on December 6th 1958, Pioneer 3 was supposed to be a lunar flyby. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but the craft did manage to reach a distance from Earth of about 63,000 miles, and used its Geiger-Müller tubes to gather useful information about the Van Allen radiation belt.

Pioneer 3 (image: NASA / JPL)

Pioneer 3 (image: NASA / JPL)

Pioneer 3 ended its one day flight by burning up over Africa.

1888   –   Birth of comedian and astronomer Will Hay in Stockton-on-Tees, North East England.  In 1933 he discovered a Great White Spot on Saturn in August 1933 (note: it’s “a” not “the” Great White Spot, as there have been several observed over the past century).  At his home in Norbury, South London, Hay built his own observatory to house his 1895-vintage 12.5 inch Newtonian reflector and the 6-inch refractor he used to discover the white spot.

1893   –   Discovery of asteroid 378 Holmia by Auguste Charlois (the name is the Latin for Stockholm).

1998   –   Launch of the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS).  One of NASA’s SMEX (Small Explorer) missions, SWAS was intended to have an operational life of two years, but managed to stretch to six, studying the cores of interstellar clouds to help our understanding of what they are composed of, and how they cool and collapse to form stars.


November 01 – Asteroid 151 Abundantia

Asteroid 151 Abundantia was discovered on November 1st 1875 by Johann Palissa, at Pula (Croatia).  It’s a stony main belt asteroid, about 45 km across, with a rotational period of approximately 19.7 hours.

Abundantia and her horn (Rubens)

Abundantia and her horn (Rubens)

The name Abundantia was chosen by Edmund Weiss, and refers to the Roman goddess of abundance and prosperity.  As can be seen from the picture, she was one of several deities to be associated with the cornucopia.

1919      Birth of Hermann Bondi, developer of the steady state theory with Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold.  Bondi was born in Austria, but became a British citizen in 1946.  Why he would want to become a citizen of a country that had interred him as an enemy alien during World War II we shall probably never know, but it was a good move, as he went on to bacome a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB) and master of Churchill College, Cambridge.

1962      Launch of Mars 1 (also known as Sputnik 23) by the USSR. Communication was lost on March 21st 1963, when the probe was just over 66 million miles from Earth.  It is now in orbit around the Sun.

October 19 – Subramanyan Chandrasekhar and IBEX – Exploring Limits

1910   – Birth of Indian astronomer Subramanyan Chandrasekhar in Lahore. Chandrasekhar studied at Cambridge University, but spent most of his working life at the University of Chicago. He is mostly remembered by the astronomical  community for showing that a white dwarf star cannot support a mass greater than 1.44 times that of the Sun. This is now called the Chandrasekhar limit. If the star has a mass in excess of this limit, it will eventually collapse to form a neutron star or a black hole. 

2008  –  Launch of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, to do exactly what the name suggests: explore the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. 

Artist's Impression of IBEX (image credit: NASA).

Artist’s Impression of IBEX (image credit: NASA).

It is a common misconception that “outer space” is empty: it isn’t; it’s just that the gas molecules and grains of dust within it are very small, and much further apart than we are used to in this seething mass of atomic activity we call home. These spaced out space particles are known as the interstellar medium (ISM). The mission for IBEX is to measure where the influence of the ISM outweighs that of the Sun’s own stream of particles, the solar wind. This “termination shock” of the solar wind is the place where, as it gets farther from the Sun, and its pressure reduces under the increasing influence of the ISM, it slows to less than the speed of sound.


July 18 – John Glenn

Today marks the birth, in 1921, of John Herschel Glenn, Jr, recently deceased (December 8th 2016) but 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 and happy-birthdayous 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.

July 15 – Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Today is the birthday of Professor Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE, born July 15th 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Dame Jocelyn was the the discoverer of the first four pulsars, and, rather disgracefully, a non-recipient of the Nobel Prize for her efforts, which has annoyed a great many people, although Bell herself has been very forgiving, as one would expect from a good Quaker girl.

1890 – Asteroid 294 Felicia was discovered by Auguste Charlois.


July 04 – Henrietta Swan Leavitt

American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the woman indirectly responsible for making Earth a much smaller and less important place,was born today in 1868.

Leavitt worked at Harvard College Observatory as a “computer”, measuring and recording the brightness of stars.  She worked on variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds, and noticed that the luminosity of a star and its period were linked. This discovery, the period-luminosity relationship , eventually led Edwin Hubble to the conclusion that spiral nebulae are actually galaxies, thus making the Universe a whole lot bigger, and showed Harlow Shapley that the Sun is in the galactic suburbs, and not, as had previously been suspected, at the centre of the action.