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. 
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November 20 – Swift

The Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer was launched on November 20th 2004 by NASA as part of their medium-sized “MIDEX” program (or grande if you’re a Starbucks drinker).  Now the first thing you’re probably thinking is “why isn’t the name Swift in capital letters?”  The answer is that Swift is not an acronym.  It doesn’t mean anything (except that you’re supposed to think of a small, fast bird).

Swift (image: NASA)

Swift (image: NASA)

If you look at some of the early press releases about Swift, NASA were hopeful that it would last for the duration of its two year mission, and survey over 200 gamma ray bursts (GRBs).  Now, 11 years later, and with over 1000 GRBs under its belt, Swift has exceeded all expectations and is still going strong.

Gamma rays are extremely high frequency emissions formed by the decay of atomic nuclei, and a burst of gamma rays is exactly what it sounds like: in a Universe where most things happen over millions of years, GRBs are astoundingly quick.  Slow ones can take a couple of hours; but the quickest have been and gone in a few milliseconds.  Also, there are only a few every million years in an average galaxy, which you might think would make them hard to spot, but fortunately they are so unbelievably powerful that the energy has no problem travelling the millions or billions of light years between the source and the detectors on board Swift.

One of Swift's collection: GRB 090429B, 13 billion light years away (image: NASA)

One of Swift’s collection: GRB 090429B, 13 billion light years away (image: NASA)

Swift has observed some pretty unusual events over its lifetime, including the most distant GRB ever seen, an x-ray source right in the centre of the galaxy, and a two-week long blast of stellar flares from a red dwarf reckoned to be 12 times hotter than the centre of the Sun.

 

October 17 – Asteroid 207 Hedda

Medium-sized (approx 60km diameter) C-type, main belt asteroid 207 Hedda was discovered on October 17th 1879 by Johann Palisa, and was his 20th discovery.

It was named after the wife of the German astronomer Friedrich August Theodor Winnecke, whose name was Hedwig.  The change to the nordic version of her name, Hedda, was suggested by J Gylden at the meeting of the Astronomische Gesellschaft in September 1881.

Friedrich August Theodor Winnecke

Friedrich August Theodor Winnecke

Hedwig Winnecke (née Dell) was a niece of the Russian astronomer Otto Struve, who we will almost certainly meet again.  Struve was director of the observatory at Pulkovo in Russia in the 1850s and persuaded August Winnecke to take up a post there.  That, presumably, was how he met his future wife.


1962  –  Kosmos 10 (aka Zenit-2 #5) was launched, using a Vostok 2 rocket, on October 17th, 1962, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, into a low-Earth orbit with a perigee of about 178 kilometres (111 miles). It was primarily a reconnaissance mission, and was landed by parachute four days after launch, but, as it was derived from the manned Vostok launch vehicle, it was also used to research radiation as part of the Soviet Union’s manned space programme.


2002  –  Launch of the International Gamma Ray Physics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) by the European Space Agency. 2002 was quite a while ago in spacecraft life-spans, but INTEGRAL is still going strong, and has recently been used, in conjunction with the Fermi and Swift space observatories, to observe gamma ray jets near a supermassive black hole using gravitational microlensing.

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

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


Also today we have a small batch of main belt asteroids, all discovered in 193p by Karl Reinmuth. They are 1172 Äneas, 1173 Archiestown, 1174 Marmara, and 1175 Margo.

 

January 19 – Launch of New Horizons

We have two quick asteroids to start us off today.  Asteroid 502 Sigune was discovered on January 19th 1903 by old hand Max Wolf at Königstuhl Observatory near Heidelberg.  On the same day, young whippersnapper Raymond Smith Dugan, also working at Heidelberg, discovered the second asteroid of his career, 503 Evelyn (named after his mother).


On January 19th 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe to Pluto, so long ago it was still a planet at the time (and always will be for some of us).  I clearly remember thinking back then that it was going to take such a long time to arrive that I’d probably have forgotten all about it, but here we are a decade later and the visit is now on the cusp of becoming a fond and fading memory.

New Horizons (image credit: NASA)

New Horizons (image credit: NASA)

New Horizons was a fairly large program by today’s standards, costing about $650m, which sounds expensive, but it’s actually only about $5 per US taxpayer, and spread over the 15 years of the project it’s a mere 33 cents a year: a bargain!  The mission has also visited Jupiter, and now that Pluto has been passed there are plans to rendezvous with at least one Kuiper Belt Object in the relatively near future (2019).  The object chosen doesn’t have a particularly catchy name yet (it’s 2014 MU69), and is apparently also known in New Horizons circles as PT1 (and yes, it does stand for “Potential Target”).  PT1 has been imaged several times by the Hubble Space Telescope to determine suitability as a target.  It is estimated to be about 30 to 44 km wide.

The Jupiter flyby, as well as being a scientific mission in its own right, and a useful testing-ground for the instrumentation before an extended period of hibernation for the long journey to Pluto, was used to increase the speed of New Horizons by “gravity assist” to 9,000 miles per hour.  I think I’ll have to get myself one.  At that speed I could travel across the Atlantic to visit my friend Joanne in Pennsylvania in about 20 minutes.

During the visit to Jupiter, New Horizons imaged the moon Callisto, and studied Jupiter’s ring system, magnetosphere, and the atmospheric conditions on the planet.

Calisto from New Horizons (image credit: NASA)

Calisto from New Horizons (image credit: NASA)

Scientific instruments on New Horizons are under the command of the Clyde Tombaugh Science Operations Centre in Colorado, and a small quantity of the ashes of the centre’s namesake, the man who discovered Pluto in February 1930, have been sent along for the ride.  Tombaugh died on January 17th 1997.

Imaging of Pluto using New Horizons LORRI imager began in January 2015. Hundreds of photographs were taken of the Pluto system, enabling navigators to fine tune Pluto’s exact position, and calculate the precise distance between New Horizons and its target.

And at the time we thought these images were pretty impressive; but they were nothing compared to what we got when the Pluto system was reached.

 

Pluto from the New Horizons probe (image credit: NASA/APL/SwRI)

Pluto from the New Horizons probe (image credit: NASA/APL/SwRI)

Surface detail of Pluto from New Horizons (image credit: NASA)

Surface detail of Pluto from New Horizons (image credit: NASA)

Pluto (image: NASA)

Pluto (image: NASA)

Charon (image: NASA)

Charon (image: NASA)

Nix (image: NASA)

Nix (image: NASA)

See what I mean?


1747Birth of Johann Elert Bode in Hamburg. The “law” named after Bode uses a formula to predict the distances of the planets from the Sun. It’s great for the first six, and was hailed a success when Uranus (a name suggested by Bode) was found in the right place. Unfortunately, the existence of the asteroid belt and Neptune were not part of the plan. Bode has a comet, an asteroid (998 Bodea) and a galaxy (M81, Bode’s Galaxy) named after him (though I suspect any inhabitants of M81 might disagree).


1965Launch of Gemini 2 from Cape Canaveral. This was an unmanned flight, but it did include a practice ingress (clambering in) and egress (being pulled out) by crewmembers of Gemini 3. Following two occasions on which the launch assembly had to be dismantled (for hurricanes Cleo and Dora) and an aborted launch on December 9th, 1964, the eighteen minute flight took place on the morning of January 19th, 1965, and was only slightly inconvenienced by a power outage at Mission Control caused by the electricity demands of the television coverage.


 

July 30 – Kosmos 36

Kosmos (Cosmos, if you prefer) 36 was launched by the USSR on July 30th, 1964, via a Kosmos 2I launcher from the Kasputin Yar site (now in the Russian Federation) between Volgograd and Astrakhan.  It was used as a radar calibration target during tests of a missile defence system to presumably protect the comrades from the likes of decadent me.

Kosmos 36 (image credit: KB Yuzhnoye).

Kosmos 36 (image credit: KB Yuzhnoye).

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