April 13 – Launch of Discoverer 2 (1959)

Discoverer 2 was launched on April 13th, 1959 from Vandenberg Air Force Base into a 239 x 346 km polar orbit via a Thor-Agena booster. It was a large cylindrical satellite, 1.5 metres in diameter, 5.85 metres long, and a hefty 3800 kg, designed to gather data for use in future missions, and to attempt ejection of an instrument package from orbit for recovery back down here.  This part of the plan was attempted on 14 April 1959, when a reentry vehicle was ejected, with the idea that it would come down somewhere conveniently near Hawaii for recovery.  Unfortunately, due to a malfunction, reentry was over the north polar region, and the capsule remains officially unrecovered, although there are those who say Soviet agents got to it first.  It has been suggested that this episode was partly the inspiration for Alistair MacLean’s novel, Ice Station Zebra.

Discoverer 2 Recovery vehicle being attached to the Thor-Agena launcher (image credit: USAF).
Discoverer 2 Recovery vehicle being attached to the Thor-Agena launcher (image credit: USAF).

Discoverer 2 successfully gathered a great deal of data on propulsion, communication, and stabilization. It was the first satellite to be stabilized in all three axes, and the first to be maneuvered by commands from Earth.

1906  –  Discovery of asteroid 598 Octavia by Max Wolf.  Octavia is a C-type asteroid of approximately 72 km diameter.  It was named for the prominent Roman noblewoman Octavia the Younger, sister of the emperor Augustus, fourth wife of Marc Antony, and great-grandmother of Caligula.  Octavia’s marriage to Marc Antony only lasted a few years before he abandoned her in favour of an old girlfriend, Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson (National Gallery, London).
Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, by Jean-Joseph Taillasson (National Gallery, London).

In today’s picture, supposedly an actual historical event, Octavia is seen swooning on hearing Virgil reading a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid.  The book contains details of the famous people encountered by Aeneas in the underworld, one of whom is Octavia’s son Marcellus (by her first husband), who had died at the age of nineteen.  The shock of hearing it is supposed to have caused Octavia to have fainted with grief.

April 01 – Discovery of Asteroid 331 Etheridgea (1892)

Asteroid 331 Etheridgea is a 75 km (47 miles) wide main belt asteroid of unknown spectral type, discovered  by Auguste Charlois on April 1st 1892.

The reason for the name is unknown, but I’ve got a hunch that it refers to the palaeontologist Robert Etheridge, who in 1892 would have been a big name in scientific circles, being president of the Geological Society of London, and a fellow of the Royal Society.

Robert Ethridge FRS

Weather satellite TIROS 1 (Television Infrared Orbiting Satellite) began a two and a half month mission on this day in 1960, launched by a Thor rocket from Cape Canaveral.  It orbited the Earth every 98 minutes at about 400 miles (650 km) altitude, shooting video of the cloud cover down here when it was able to  (TIROS 1 was “spin stabilized”, meaning  it could only take pictures if the cameras were pointing in the right direction; and it had to be daylight as well, because, I assume, the idea of sending a five-mile wide flashbulb into orbit was deemed unrealistic).

Artist's Impression of TIROS 1
Artist’s Impression of TIROS 1

Despite only  being operational for 78 days, TIROS 1 was a successful test satellite, and paved the way for a further 9 TIROS launches over the next five years.

March 09 – Birth of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934)

Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was born on March 9th, 1934, in the village of Klushino, near Ghatsk, in the western USSR. Ghatsk is a small town of about 30,000 people, and is now, unsurprisingly, called Gagarin. The family home is now a museum to the first human in space (the feat was achieved on April 12, 1961, and was Gagarin’s only spaceflight). His parents, incidentally, both worked on a collective farm. It just doesn’t get any more Soviet than that, does it?

Yuri Gagarin
Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin was a heavily decorated guy, achieving the rare honour of Hero of the Soviet Union, which he shares with the likes of Lenin, Leonid Brezhnev, and (slightly more unusually) President Nasser of Egypt. Surely though, his most prized possession must have been the Gold Medal of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS).

1882  –  Main belt asteroid 223 Rosa discovered by Johann Palisa.  Now then, here’s something we don’t see every day: 223 Rosa is classified as both a C-type and a P-type asteroid, meaning it probably contains carbonaceous material (C) and water ice (P).  The “P” in P-type stands for Pseudo-M, as they belong to a group that has many of the same properties as M-type asteroids, but a lower albedo, which stopped them slotting into the M-type bracket.  Rosa was the thirty-second of Palisa’s 122 asteroid discoveries.  The thinking behind the name remains a mystery.

1974  –  British satellite Miranda launched to test three-axis gyro systems.

February 27 – Launch of Discoverer 38 (1962)

Launched on February 27th, 1962, from Vandenburg Air Force Base by the Thor launch vehicle, Discoverer 38 had a wide variety of experiments on board, including some which were later recovered in mid-air on their way back to Earth.  The experiments in the re-entry capsule mainly involved measuring the effects of exposure to radiation and the environment beyond our atmosphere.  Some organic matter (human tissue, algae, molds, etc) were included to see how they stood up to being in space.  The re-entry capsule was detached and recovered successfully after 65 orbits, with the rest of the craft burning up on re-entry on March 21st.

Discoverer 38 was the last of the US series of Corona spy satellites to use the “Discoverer” cover name.  The name was used to help disguise the fact that, while carrying out scientific study at high altitudes was undoubtedly of great importance to the US government, no way was it as important as taking photographs of the USSR, which was the other part of Discoverer 38’s mission.

KH-4 CORONA-M (of the type used for the Discoverer 38 mission). (image credit: Giuseppe De Chiara)
KH-4 CORONA-M (of the type used for the Discoverer 38 mission). (amazing image credit: Giuseppe De Chiara)


December 12 – Launch of Uhuru (1970)

Uhuru, also known as the X-Ray Explorer Satellite or SAS-1 (for Small Astronomical Satellite) was an orbiting observatory, specifically for X-ray astronomy (the first of its kind). It was launched from the Italian San Marco offshore launch platform off the coast of Kenya on December 12th 1970, Kenyan independence day, hence the post-launch choice of a new name, which, as all good Star Trek fans know, is the Swahili for “freedom”. Its three year mission was to seek out new X-ray sources via a survey of the entire sky.

Uhuru (image credit: NASA)
Uhuru (image credit: NASA)

Uhuru was the first US satellite to be launched by another country.  Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between NASA and the University of Rome, the Americans provided the rocket and satellite, while the Italians were responsible for the assembly and launch (following training with NASA in Virginia). The site was chosen principally to enable easier access to an equatorial orbit than would be possible from Cape Canaveral (which would have needed a much larger rocket).

The joint mission was very successful, with Uhuru producing a catalog of some 300 X-ray objects during its three years, mostly binary systems and supernova remnants.


October 19 – Birth of Subramanyan Chandrasekhar (1910)

On this day in 1910, Indian astronomer Subramanyan Chandrasekhar was born 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.

Chandrasekhar was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the evolution of stars, but it was a long time coming. He had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1944, awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1953, and the Henry Draper Medal (awarded every 4 years for research in astronomical physics) in 1971. Following his Nobel Prize, the Royal Society honoured him with the Copley Medal (the world’s oldest scientific award still being given out) in 1984.

October 17 – Launch of INTEGRAL (2002)

The International Gamma Ray Astrophysics Physics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) was launched on this day in 2002 by the European Space Agency. 2002 was quite a while ago in spacecraft life-spans, but INTEGRAL is still going strong, and still producing plenty of results.  The launch was provided by the Russian state-owned Roscosmos corporation, and took place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, using a Proton-K rocket.

Artist’s Impression of INTEGRAL (image: ESA–Medialab)

Highlights of the mission so far have included:

  • observing, in conjunction with the Fermi and Swift space observatories, gamma ray jets near a supermassive black hole using gravitational microlensing;
  • taking part in a multi-observatory study of blazar TXS 0506+056, an active galactic nucleus, and a source of high energy neutrinos;
  • collecting data on the unusual behaviour of the black hole of V404 Cygni during its 2015 outburst;
  • studying “AT2018cow”, the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded, and possibly the birth of a black hole or neutron star.


October 15 – Ariel V

The joint UK/USA satellite Ariel V was launched by  Scout B-1 solid fuel rocket, on October 15th 1974 from the Italian Space Agency’s San Marco platform off the coast of Kenya. It was an x-ray observatory, with a camera and a variety of instruments provided via NASA and the (now defunct) UK Science and Engineering Research Council. Operations were controlled from the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

Artist's Conception of Ariel V (image credit: NASA)
Artist’s Conception of Ariel V (image credit: NASA)

Ariel V was the fifth of six Ariels, launched between 1962 and 1979. It’s orbit decayed on March 14th 1980.  The name is probably a nod to the works of one of Britain’s biggest exports, William Shakespeare (I say this because our only other early satellite was called Prospero).

Ariel V produced several highlights, discovering long-period x-ray pulsars and x-ray transients (Nature, vol 261, 1976).

July 10 — Launch of Telstar 1 (1962)

Telstar 1, launched from Cape Canaveral on July 10th, 1962, marked a significant jump in the evolution of global communication.  It provided the first ever relay via space of television, telephone and telegraph images.

Telstar (model). Credit: AT&T / Rama.

The Telstar project was an international affair, involving the US, UK, and France.  It was also responsible for the building of the first dish at Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, a visit to which, in the 1970s, I remember as being partly responsible for my fascination with astronomy and spaceflight (Patrick Moore provided the rest of the inspiration).

Postcard from Goonhilly Satellite Station, Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall.

Built by Bell Labs, Telstar was designed to fit inside the US Delta launch vehicle, and it’s one of those things that I find hard to work out the size of from a photograph.  It’s actually just a little bigger than a large yoga ball (34.5 inches diameter).  Telstar was put into an off-centre orbit, varying between under 600 and over 3,600 miles above the Earth.  It’s still up there, and it’s altitude means it will probably remain up there for a very long time.

Unfortunately Telstar’s working life was severely curtailed by the effects of radiation from a high-altitude nuclear test (amazingly there was nothing unusual about that in the 1960’s).  It failed in November 1962, just four months after launch.  But that was still long enough to handle a few hundred telephone and telegraph messages, and to transmit a game of baseball and a speech by John F Kennedy.  They managed to get it working again in January 1963, but once again, radiation (this time solar) proved Telstar’s downfall, shutting it off for good in February.

Cloth sticker bought from “somewhere near Goonhilly” by my parents on their honeymoon, 1962.


July 03 – Launch of SAMPEX (1992)

SAMPEX was the Solar Anomalous and Magnetospheric Particle Explorer. It was launched on July 3rd 1992 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a Scout Rocket (and was RIP Nov 13, 2012).

SAMPEX (image: NASA)
SAMPEX (image: NASA)

SAMPEX’s instruments were far more sensitive than those of previous similar missions, which allowed a great deal of new information to be gathered on the composition of interstellar gas, the mechanism of solar atmospheric heating and the relative abundance of various isotopes.

As you can see from the photograph, SAMPEX was quite dinky.  This is because it was an early success of NASA’s Small Explorer Program, or SMEX. (Why not SEX? They could have improved their hit rate on Google by loads.)

SMEX funds projects costing no more than $120m.