March 19 – 326 Tamara

1892   –   Asteroid 326 Tamara, discovered March 19 1892 by Johann Palisa.  It is a C-type asteroid of about 93 km wide in the main belt, named after Tamar the Great, Queen of Georgia.

Queen Tamar, and her father, George III of Georgia.

Queen Tamar, and her father, George III of Georgia.

1892  –  Asteroid 332 Siri was also discovered on March 19th 1892, but by Max Wolf at Heidelberg.  It’s a fairly small object, about 40km wide.  The origin of the name is not known, and I haven’t been able to find any likely candidates.  Part of the problem, of course, is that, as with the aforementioned Tamara, and the next on this page, Isara, the name could have been altered to fit some perceived idea of what an asteroid’s name should sound like.

1893  –  Asteroid 364 Isara was discovered by Auguste Charlois.  It is a member of the large Flora family of S-type asteroids, which may be parents of the L chondrite meteorites.  The Isère river, from which this asteroid derives its name, flows from the Alps and joins the Rhone near Valence in southern France.

1919  –  Karl Wilhelm Reinmuth discovers asteroid 911 Agamemnon, a “Greek camp” Jupiter Trojan of approximately 83 km radius (making it probably the second biggest).

Originally posted 2015. Updated 2017.


December 10 – Asteroid 211 Isolda

Asteroid 211 Isolda, discovered on December 10th 1879 by Johann Palisa, is about as average as asteroids get.  It’s dark, in the main belt, C-type, 150-ish km across, and has an orbital period of 5.3 years.

So today, as well as mentioning those orbital characteristics of Isolda with which we all should now be familiar from previous posts (aphelion – 3.53 AU; perihelion – 2.54 AU; semi-major axis – 3.04 AU, and longitude of ascending node – 263.8°) I’m going to say that Isolda has an eccentricity of about 0.16.

Eccentricity is another fairly simple concept: it’s got very little to do with the behaviour of the English upper classes (you shouldn’t confuse eccentricity with lunacy) but a lot to do with the orbit of almost everything in the solar system being non-circular.  Eccentricity, if we’re talking about planets, moons, asteroids and most known comets, will be measured on a scale somewhere between zero (completely circular) and one (an “escape” orbit).  Planets have a fairly low eccentricities (Earth = about 0.017); asteroids are a bit more wayward (their average is ten times greater, at 0.17), and comets can be anything, with values near to, or even in excess of, 1.0 (eccentricities of more than 1 are reserved for comets that are being flung out of the solar system following their solar fly-by).  Neptune’s moon Triton has the lowest known eccentricity, at 0.000016.  This is about as circular as can be accurately measured.

Isolda, of course, is named after Isolde, (or Iseult of Ireland) the lover of Sir Tristan of Arthurian legend and Wagnerian opera.

Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde

Today’s photograph shows husband and wife team Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Wagner’s original 1865 Tristan and Isolde.  Ludwig was a heldentonor, the dramatic tenor typical of Wagnerian  protagonists. Soprano Malvina was the daughter of the Portuguese consul in Copenhagen, and was a great-grand-neice of David Garrick, giant of the English theatre.

1999  ⇒  Launch of ESA’s XMM-Newton (it stands for X-ray Multi Mirror Mission), the largest satellite to date to be launched by the European Space Agency (4 tonnes in weight and 10 meters long).

November 22 – Asteroid 156 Xanthippe

Asteroid 156 Xanthippe was discovered by Johann Palisa on November 22nd 1875.  It has been classified as a C-type, with a diameter of about 116km and a rotation period of 22.5 hours.

Xanthippe, whose name means “yellow horse”, was the wife of Socrates, and is  a woman about whom we know little from historical sources.  Even Plato, a man with an interest in Socrates bordering on the obsessive, mentions her only briefly in his Phaedo.  In Xenophon’s writings she is shown to be a little on the argumentative side, and this view of her has been embroidered upon, probably unfairly, down the years, until by Shakespeare’s time her name had become synonymous with an aggressive, bad-tempered woman.

Socrates and Xanthippe

Socrates and Xanthippe

The engraving above, by the Dutch artist Otto van Veen, is of Xanthippe emptying a chamber pot over the head of Socrates (supposedly the outcome of one of their many arguments).

1944  ⇒  Death of Arthur Eddington, the man who gave us the Eddington limit, the maximum luminosity achievable by a star (aged 61).

1969  ⇒  The Skynet 1A satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.  This was the first of a series of British satellites providing a means of communication for the armed forces.  Being British, of course, it broke after about a year (I think the rubber band snapped) but is still in orbit, and is likely to remain there, according to the UK Space Agency “UK Registry of Outer Space Objects” for upwards of a million years.


November 06 – Asteroid 178 Belisana

This could be a short one.  Today’s discovery, 178 Belisana, is a main belt asteroid, spotted by our old friend Johann Palisa on November 6th, 1877.  It is an S-type, stony asteroid, named after the Celtic goddess of almost the same name, Belisama.



The goddess Belisama was popular in Gaul, and has been associated with Minerva.  It is also possible, but not certain, that she was goddesss of one of my local rivers, the Ribble.


November 03 – Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2 was launched by the USSR on November 3rd, 1957, and was the first spaceflight to carry a living creature (assuming we ignore anything microscopic that might have hitched a lift on Sputnik 1). The creature in question was a dog, originally called Kudryavka, but renamed Laika (“Barker”) for some reason.

Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2 was considerably larger than its predecessor, being a conical design of around 13 feet high and 6 foot 7 inches diameter at the base, weighing half a tonne. A modified R-7 ICBM was used as the launch vehicle.
The plan was to keep Laika alive for as long as possible to study her vital signs, but a problem with the thermal insulation system (of which the flight engineers were aware, but had no time to fix) the cabin temperature passed 40C (100F) after only a few hours, and it is likely she died after only two or three of Sputnik 2’s 103 minute orbits (the Soviets, of course, claimed she had survived for a week). Her remains were cremated on April 14, 1958, when her hi-tech coffin burned up on re-entry.

We also have two asteroids today, 262 Valda and 263 Dresda, both discovered in Vienna by Johann Palisa on November 3rd 1886.  There’s very little of great interest to say about either of them, except to note that Dresda is a member of the Koronian family of asteroids, named after 158 Koronis, all of which travel in a group, and are thought to be the result of a collision between two large bodies several million years ago.

Dresda, as you might already have guessed, was named after the German city of Dresden.  It was so named at the request of a Baron Engelhardt, who owned a private observatory in the city.

But Valda is more mysterious.  It’s a German name, meaning “renowned ruler”, but it’s proving tricky to find any Valda’s who were popular at the time, or related to the discoverer.  It could, of course, have been named after the commune of Valda in northern Italy, but as the population of this minuscule place in the 1880’s would have been well under a thousand, this is unlikely.  The name was the idea of Bettina von Rothschild who, you may recall, had already been immortalized as 250 Bettina by Palisa the previous year.  Unfortunately I’ve checked up on her parents, siblings and children, and can’t find a Valda anywhere (grandchildren don’t need to be checked, as Bettina was only 34 when she died).

Perhaps the Rothschilds took their holidays in northern Italy.  How on Earth do I find that out?

1960     Launch of Explorer 8 by NASA, via a Juno II launcher, into an elliptical orbit. It had a payload of six experiments to study charged particles (and micrometeorites) in the ionosphere, which it did until the battery failed in December 1960.


October 31 – Asteroids 261 Prymno and 281 Lucretia

A  brace of early asteroids were discovered on October 31st.  First today we have 261 Prymno, spotted by C H F Peters in 1886.  Prymno is in the main belt, is about 51 km wide, and is a relatively uncommon B-type.  These are similar to C-types, but are generally lighter in colour than their carbonaceous cousins, and tend to have a bluer spectrum.  Asteroid 101955 Bennu is another B-type, about which I expect to be saying a lot more following the launch of the OSIRIS-REx mission on September 8th, 2016.

Prymno is named after an Oceanid of Greek mythology.  They were the daughters (numbering an impressive 3000) of the God Oceanus, the personification of the sea.  Oceanus also had 3000 sons (of course) who were river gods known as the Potamoi.

Oceanus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne).

Oceanus (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne).

Our second asteroid today is 281 Lucretia, discovered two years after Prymno by Johann Palisa.  A fairly small S-type asteroid of about 12 km diameter, Lucretia is a member of the Flora family of asteroids, a big group (about 5% of main belt asteroids are in this family) located in the inner main belt.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848).

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848).

The naming of Lucretia has nothing to do with the Borgias, and everything to do with the middle name of German-born astronomer Caroline Herschel, sister of the more famous Sir William Herschel.



October 29 – Asteroid 280 Philia

There isn’t a great deal to say about 280 Philia, discovered on this day in 1888 by Johann Palissa at Vienna Observatory, except that it is in the main belt, is about 46km in diameter, has an absolute magnitude of 10.7, and takes 1,845 days to orbit the Sun at a little over 17.3km/second.

Detail of The School of Athens, by Raphael. Aristotle (right) holds a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics. The other chap is Plato.

Detail of The School of Athens, by Raphael. Aristotle (right) holds a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics. The other chap is Plato.

Philia is usually translated into English as “brotherly love” (as in Philadelphia), but Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, gave it the broader meaning of friendship, which he then sub-divided into three distinct types, according to why they were formed. These are (i) “friendships of utility”, which we would probably call acquaintances; (ii) “friendships of pleasure”, such as those formed by people who meet through a common hobby, and (iii) “friendships of the good”, the highest level of friendship, formed by those who enjoy each other simply for who they are.



October 21 – Asteroid 76 Freia

Today we say hello to 76 Freia, a large, dark, main belt asteroid, discovered on this day in 1862 by an extremely occasional visitor to these pages, the German astronomer Heinrich d’Arrest (this is his only asteroid discovery).  Freia is a member of the Cybele group of asteroids, in the outer reaches of the main belt.  They are thought to be the remnants of a large object which broke up some time long ago.

Freia (by Carl Emil Doepler, 1824-1905).

Freia (by Carl Emil Doepler, 1824-1905).

The goddess Freyja, after whom you have probably deduced this asteroid is named, is a typically strange member of the Norse deities.  She drove a chariot drawn by cats, and was seldom seen in public without her sidekick, a boar called Hildisvini, which she would also ride when her pussy wagon wasn’t available.

Freyja, possibly meaning “lady” (as in the German frau) is goddess of love, sexuality and fertility, and it is thought by some that she and Frigg (whom we may well meet on November 12 under the guise of the splendidly-named asteroid 77 Frigga) derive from a common Germanic predecessor.

1879  ⇒   Asteroid 208 Lacrimosa discovered by Johann Palissa.

1967  ⇒  Death of Ejnar Hertzsprung.

October 08 – Ejnar Hertzsprung

Today is the birthday of Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung, born in Copenhagen in 1873.  He was co-developer of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, the scatter graph of choice for anyone wanting to get a grip on stellar evolution.

Hertzsprung discovered two asteroids from the Union Observatory in Johannesburg: a main belter called 1702 Kalahari, and a large* near-Earth “Mars crosser” called 1627 Ivar.  The naming of Kalahari is fairly self-explanatory, given the location of its discovery.  But Ivar is more mysterious.  There are many Ivar’s out there.  Most of the famous ones are Norwegian, but none springs out as the obvious candidate for this happy event.

*  –  My use of the word “large”, by the way, is relative.  1627 Ivar is 9 km wide, which would make it tiny in the main belt, but is very large for a neighbour of this planet.

Copenhagen's most famous resident (photo: me).

Copenhagen’s most famous resident (photo: me).

Unless you’ve been to Copenhagen, you have no idea how hard it is to take a photograph of the mermaid without a hundred or more heads in front of it.

1879  –  S-type asteroid 204 Kallisto discovered by Johann Palissa.

1887  –  Asteroid 270 Anahita discovered by C H F Peters.

October 06 – 51 Pegasi b

October 6th 1995 was a significant day in the hunt for extrasolar planets, with the discovery, in the constellation of Pegasus (the winged horse), of the first one found to be orbiting a main sequence, Sun-like star. That star was 51 Pegasi, and the planet is known as 51 Pegasi b, shortened to 51 Peg b if you’re in a hurry, and lengthened (unofficially) to Bellerophon if you’re not. Bellerophon was the Greek character who tamed Pegasus, so you can see what they did there. The “b”, by the way, indicates that this was the first planet discovered around 51 Peg. There is no “a”, as that letter would be used, in uppercase, to denote the star itself, and would only be needed if the star had a companion (“B”).

Count them if you like.

Count them if you like.

The discovery of 51 Peg b was made using the radial velocity method, and announced by Michael Mayor and Didier Queloz. It was later confirmed by other observers (always important).

Despite orbiting a Sun-like star, 51 Peg b was still nothing like the type of place planet hunters were looking for (they all wanted to find an Earth-like planet at about the same orbit as ours). 51 Peg b is about 150 times the mass of the Earth, wider than Jupiter, is closer to 51 Peg than Mercury is to the sun, giving it a mean temperature of around 1,000°C, and has a year lasting about 4 Earth days. All of which has made me decide not to move there (my border perennials wouldn’t like it one bit).

Smallish asteroid 299 Thora is a fairly typical main belter, discovered on October 6th 1890 by Johann Palisa. It is about 17 km wide, and zooms around the Sun every 1,387 days at 19 km/second.

Thor wades through a river while the æsir take the bridge, by Lorenz Frølich

Thor wades through a river while the æsir take the bridge, by Lorenz Frølich

The name Thora was chosen by a Professor Schlieber of Berlin, after the Germanic and Norse god of thunder and lightning, Thor. According to Norse legend, Thor was the son of Odin, and husband of Sif (although, as with the Greek gods, this didn’t stop him fathering children by other women). Thor, as you probably aware, carried a hammer capable of flattening mountains, and had Thursday named in his honour.

So, if you know anyone named Thora, tell them they can blame it on their pagan Viking parents.

1964  –  The Soviet Union launches Kosmos 47, an unmanned Voskhod test flight.

1990  –  Launch of the NASA / ESA Ulysses probe to study the Sun.