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 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.

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.


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, aged 61, the man who gave us the Eddington limit, the maximum luminosity achievable by a star.

1969The 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 (probably just after the warranty expired) but is still in orbit, and is likely to remain there, according to the UK Space Agency’s “UK Registry of Outer Space Objects” for upwards of a million years.

November 06 – Asteroid 178 Belisana

This is going to 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 – Launch of Sputnik 2 (1957)

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 – Discovery of 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 conclusion of the OSIRIS-REx mission.

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 – Discovery of Asteroid 280 Philia (1888)

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.



September 21 – Discovery of Asteroid 149 Medusa (1875)

Henri Joseph Anastase Perrotin discovered today’s first asteroid, 149 Medusa, on September 21st 1875, at which time I believe he was working at Toulouse Observatory. His name is quite impressive,  so his discoveries are normally just credited to J Perrotin.

Medusa, despite being a bright stony asteroid, was a good catch for Perrotin, as it was the smallest to have been found at the time.


Medusa, of course, was the hideous female gorgon with snakes for hair who turned to stone anyone who met her gaze. She was one of three sisters (the others being Stheno and Euryale) who were the children of the marine deitiesPhorkys and Keto. Medusa was killed by Perseus, who then presented her head to Athene to attach to her shield. The word gorgon, incidentally, comes from the same root as the Sanskrit word “garg”, meaning a monster (from the noise they generally make).

Twelve years later, on September 21st 1887, Johann Palisa discovered 269 Justitia, a much larger main belt asteroid which was named after the Roman goddess whose Greek equivalent was Themis.

Themis, the personification of divine law and order, was one of the original twelve Titans, descendants of Gaia and Uranus, who ran the world until the Olympian gods showed up and overthrew them.