July16 – Launch of Apollo 11

July 16th 1969 is a fairly important day in spaceflight history.  It’s the day on which Neil A Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin decided to get away from it all.  Their Saturn V rocket (SA-506), the fifth manned Apollo mission, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre at about half past one in the afternoon (Staffordshire Time) and may be the reason I have the vaguest recollection of my infant school gathering after dinner to watch a launch on the school television.

Launch of Apollo 11 (image credit: NASA)

Launch of Apollo 11 (image credit: NASA)


Also today, in 1990, Mark R Showalter, using old frames from Voyager 2, discovered Saturn’s walnut-shaped moon, Pan, in the Encke Gap of the A Ring (the outermost of the main bright rings).

Thanks to the Cassini probe, we now have images beyond the wildest dreams of Voyager scientists:

Pan, imaged by Cassini (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Pan, of course, invented the pan pipes. He was a pretty hot musician all round, but a little big-headed. The story goes that he challenged Apollo to a musical duel. Pan was good, but Apollo was better. Only one person listening to the contest believed that Pan had won. This was Midas (he of the golden touch). So annoyed was Apollo at this lack of musical taste that he changed Midas’ ears into something more appropriate: those of a donkey.

The Judgement of Midas (Peter Paul Rubens)

The Judgement of Midas (Peter Paul Rubens)

Now, correct me if I’m incorrect, but in today’s artistic offering, is Pan playing his own invention upside-down?


This post originally published in 2015.  Updated 2017. 

November 09 – Apollo 4 / Venus Express

Today I have a good excuse (as if one were needed) to show a photograph of a Saturn V, as it marks the anniversary of the launch by NASA, in 1967, of Apollo 4, the first “all-up” (everything in working condition) test of the Saturn V launch vehicle.  Launch was at 7am, and the business end of the 363 foot (110 m) miracle of 1960’s engineering was parked into a 100 mile high orbit for two trips around the Earth, before the command module was splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, close to Midway Island.

Apollo 4 launch (image credit: NASA)

Apollo 4 launch (image credit: NASA)

The unmanned mission was deemed to have been successful, and involved placing the third stage, the S-IVB (pronounced “ess four bee”) and the CSM (Command/Service Module) into orbit, and simulating a return to Earth from a Moon mission.


Venus Express was the first mission to Venus by the European Space Agency.  It used the same basic platform used for the Mars Express mission of 2003, keeping costs down, and allowing rather a swifter progression than normal from the proposal of the mission to the actual launch.

The launch, on November 9th 2005, was from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, which by that time was no longer behind the Iron Curtain, and available to rent.  I’m not sure how much it costs to launch from Baikonur, but the Russians are currently paying the Kazakh government $115m (US) a year for the privilege.

After a voyage of just over 5 months, Venus Express parked in a near-polar orbit, chosen to give it the best view possible of most of the planet.  Obviously most of the focus was on studying the structure and composition of the extremely thick Venusian atmosphere, but observations of the surface have also been made possible by use of the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS).  This has helped support the theory that Venus has recently seen volcanic activity.

Venus Express (image copyright ESA)

Venus Express (image copyright ESA)

You can see VIRTIS on the above image.  Also indicated are the magnetometer (MAG), the Fourier spectrometer (PFS) and the camera (VMC).