February 15 – The Cat’s Eye Nebula

NGC 6543

Everybody’s seen photographs of this one, but that’s no reason to not show it again: it’s the Cat’s Eye Nebula, otherwise known as NGC 6543, (or “Caldwell 6″ in Patrick Moore’s list of more challenging, non-Messier objects), an expanding cloud of mostly hydrogen and helium, discovered on February 15th 1786 by William Herschel.

Hubble image of the Cat's Eye Nebula (image credit: NASA/ESA)
Hubble image of the Cat’s Eye Nebula (image credit: NASA/ESA)

The nebula is one of the most complex we know of, and was formed around 1,000 years ago when the star (or stars – it may be a binary system) at its centre lost its outer shell. That star, smaller than the Sun but approximately 10,000 times as luminous, is what is responsible for the nebula being lit up like a Christmas tree.

NGC 6543 is around 3,000 light years away and has an observed density of about 5,000 particles per cubic cm.


Launched on February 15th 1973 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Prognoz 3‘s purpose was to study solar flares, and help increase our understanding of how the Sun’s activity affects the Earth’s magnetosphere. Prognoz launches took place at an impressive rate. Getting the entire fleet of 10 satellites off the ground only took 54 weeks.


Asteroid 442 Eichsfeldia was discovered on February 15th, 1899, by Max Wolf and Arnold Schwassman. It’s a C-type main belt asteroid of approximately 65 km diameter.


 

February 12 – NEAR Goes Far

On February 12th 2001, NASA successfully landed the NEAR-Shoemaker probe onto the surface of asteroid 433 Eros, completing the first ever successful soft-landing on an asteroid.

NEAR stands for “Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous”, while the Shoemaker refers to Eugene Shoemaker, American pioneer of astrogeology, and discoverer of the immensely famous Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which you will probably remember colliding with Jupiter in July 1994.

Close-up of Eros (from a mosaic of shots taken by NEAR). Image: NASA.
Close-up of Eros (from a mosaic of shots taken by NEAR). Image: NASA.

NEAR had been launched on February 17th 1996, and although the main aim of the mission was to study Eros from orbit, it also flew by asteroid 253 Mathilde in June 1997, and spent over a year studying gamma ray bursts, short bursts of energy thought to originate in supernovae (or occasionally binary neutron star mergers) in very distant galaxies.


Also on this day, spacecraft Venera 1 (code-named “Sputnik 8” on this side of the iron curtain at the time because Soviet mission details were hard to come by) was launched in 1961 from Baikonur Cosmodrome on it’s way to Venus.

Venera 1
Venera 1

Venera 1 (pictured) was a great looking craft, straight from a 1930’s sci-fi movie (I think the phrase I’m looking for is über retro). Unfortunately though, it didn’t work quite as well as your average weird-looking device launched by an evil empire usually does in the movies. The last successful communication with it was on February 17th 1961, and there is no evidence of any contact later than this. Communication with the craft was officially designated as “failed” on March 4th.


And finally today, asteroid 303 Josephina was discovered on February 12th 1891 by Italian astronomer Elia Filippo Francesco Giuseppe Maria Millosevich, the man, coincidentally, who predicted the orbit of Eros. This main belt asteroid of about 99 km diameter was one of only two he discovered, and was apparently named “in homage to a person dear to me”. How nice.


February 09 – Apollo 14 Splashdown

We have a collection of shorts today, starting on February 9th 1882 with the possibly C-type, 55km wide, main belt asteroid 222 Lucia, discovered by Johann Palisa.  Lucia is a Themistian asteroid, one of a group sharing orbital properties with 22 Themis. It was named after the daughter of the Arctic explorer and president of the Austrian Geographical Society, Count Johann Nepomuk (Hans) Wilczek 02/12/1837 – 27/01/1922).


On this day in 1905, 558 Carmen was discovered by Max Wolf.  It is an M type main belt asteroid of about 59km diameter.


And now, in the interests of détente, we have one item each from either side of the iron curtain in the same year, 1971, starting with the launch of Cosmos (or Kosmos) 394 by the USSR. Launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the north west of Russia into a low Earth orbit of 522 km (324 miles) Kosmos 394 (or 1971-010A if you prefer) was part of the testing programme for Soviet anti-weapons systems. As (i) it played the role of a target, and (ii) the test was a success, I wouldn’t bother trying to find it I the night sky.


February 9th, 1971 also saw the splashdown of Apollo 14, containing Alan Shepherd, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, in the South Pacific Ocean. Roosa had worked, in a pre-NASA life, as a forestry smokejumper (guys who were parachuted into inaccessible areas to fight wildfires). As a result, he was thought the ideal candidate to take 500 seeds of several species of tree into lunar orbit.

Colonel Stuart A "Stu" Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)
Colonel Stuart A “Stu” Roosa, USAF (image credit: NASA)

On their return to Earth the seeds were germinated, and the resulting Moon trees were planted across the United States (they were also sent to Italy, Brazil, Japan and Switzerland).

February 03 – Luna 9 lands on the Moon

Feb 3rd is a big day in spaceflight history, because on this day in 1966, the Soviet Union successfully soft-landed  Luna 9 onto the Moon, beating the USA by just over 4 months, and no doubt causing wide grins and double vodkas all round in Moscow.

Luna 9 was launched from the world’s oldest space centre at Tyuratum in Khazakstan.  The centre is still being used by the Russians, although today they have to lease it from the Khazak government (how are the mighty fallen).

Luna 9
Luna 9

The flight to the moon took 79 hours, after which the main spacecraft ejected a small (2 foot diameter) capsule weighing 220 lb (100 kg) which, thanks to the ingenious use of retro rockets, airbags, outrigger engines and a 16 foot long probe which told the engines to cut out when it touched the surface, hit the Moon at a sedate 14 mph, and only needed to bounce a few times before righting itself (it was weighted in such a way as to come to rest the right way up).  The four “petals” covering the top half of the craft then opened up and became stabilizing legs (as in the photo of the still futuristic-looking-after-all-these-years Luna 9, above).   Landing occurred in the Oceanus Procellarum at 9.45 PM Moscow time.

Three panaoramic photographs were transmitted back to Earth over a three day period.   They were picked up by Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, and decoded thanks to a receiver provided by the Daily Express newspaper (see below).

Photograph of the Moon from Luna 9
Photograph of the Moon from Luna 9

2008   ⇒   On this day in 2008 the extrasolar planet Corot-3b was discovered in the constellation of Aquilla by the French-led COnvection ROtation et Transits planétairesmission using the transit method.


1921   ⇒   Happy birthday Ralph Asher Apher, cosmologist, born today in Washington DC.  A big name in the world of big bang nucleosynthesis, which sounds like heavy stuff, and is, as it describes how heavier elements would be created in the primordial universe).


 

February 01 – Columbia

One event will forever be linked to this date in spaceflight history.  Feb 1st 2003 was the day the space shuttle Columbia, gliding in to conclude 16 day mission STS-107, broke up during re-entry, the result of damage caused by the breaking off of a piece of insulation foam from the external tank during launch.  All seven crew members were killed, and debris was scattered over a large area of Texas and Louisiana.  There’s been plenty of discussion about this tragedy ever since, so I won’t be commenting further.

Official STS-107 Crew Photo (image: NASA)
Official STS-107 Crew Photo (image: NASA)

The crew were (L-R in the photo above):  David M Brown, Rick D Husband (commander), Laurel B Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P Anderson, William C McCool (pilot), and Ilan Ramon.

January 30 – Launch of Ranger 6 (1964)

Spacecraft Ranger 6 was launched by NASA on January 30th 1964 from Cape Canaveral.  The plan was to transmit high resolution pictures back from the surface of the Moon.  Ranger 6 did indeed make it to the Moon, landing in the Mare Tranquillitatis on Feb 2nd, but was never heard from again (a short-circuit during separation from the launch vehicle had rendered the cameras inoperative).

Ranger 6
Ranger 6

Not wanting to feel left out, the Russians on this day in 1964 managed to  launch two spacecraft at once for the first time.  Elektron 1 and Elektron 2 were hoist skyward atop a Vostok-K rocket to study the Van Allen radiation belt and the Earth’s magnetic field.  The two were launched simultaneously to allow the inner and outer belts to be studied at the same time.   I believe all 350kg (771 lb) of  Elektron 1 is still up there.

Elektron-style satellite (possibly Elektron 1, but you can never be sure).
Elektron-style satellite (possibly Elektron 1, but you can never be sure).

 

January 24 – Voyager 2 reaches Uranus (1986)

1986: Voyager 2 makes its closest approach to Uranus.  The seventh planet from the Sun was reached after a journey lasting more than eight years.  It was a great success, discovering ten new moons, and two new rings.

Three new Uranian moons discovered by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
Three new Uranian moons discovered by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

The moons shown in the above photograph are Portia, (1986/U1), Cressida (1986/U3), and Rosalind (1986/U4).

The rings of Uranus, viewed from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
The rings of Uranus, viewed from Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

It isn’t clear whether the rings of Uranus were known prior to 1977 when they were discovered by Elliott, Dunham & Mink. William Herschel had reported seeing them almost 200 years previously, but he might have been making an educated guess, as they would have been very hard to see with the instruments available at the time.

Parting shot of Uranus by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)
Parting shot of Uranus by Voyager 2 (image credit: NASA)

As far as I know there are no definite plans to re-visit Uranus in the near future.  Several missions have been suggested, but it takes a long time to get there, making it expensive, and these days you need to prove that it would be worth it.


1882 – Birth of Harold Babcock in Edgerton, Wisconsin.


 

January 16 – Soyuz 4 and 5 Get Close (1969)

1969 – The first ever docking between two manned spacecraft, Soyuz 4 and 5, took place on January 16th in this year. This was the first occasion on which crew were transferred from one ship to another. Back then though, it wasn’t as simple as floating through a hatch like they do on the International Space Station. Alexei Yeliseyev and Yevgeny Khrunov had to go outside and clamber along from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4 if they wanted a lift home.

Hungarian 3 Forint Stamp Showing the Historic Docking.
Hungarian 3 Forint Stamp Showing the Historic Docking.

January 16 – Lunokhod 2 Perambulates

Looking for all the world like a space-age pram, Lunokhod 2, the second and last Soviet Moon rover, began exploring our nearby companion on January 16th 1973. It had been landed on the surface the day before by Luna 21, following a four-day journey from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Lunokhod’s mission was partly to help determine whether Moon-based astronomy was a realistic proposition, and partly to study and take photographs of the surface.

Lunokhod 2 Panorama (image provided by the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology, Vernadsky Institute)
Lunokhod 2 Panorama (image provided by the Laboratory of Comparative Planetology, Vernadsky Institute)

Lunokhod 2 provided many great shots of the surface, such as the one above showing its own tracks in the lunar dust and the Luna 21 lander in the distance, and traveled further on the Moon than any other vehicle. Which brings us to the part I find hardest to believe. Just look at the thing . . .

Lunokhod Rover
Lunokhod Rover

Okay: say what you see. Pram? Mobile bathtub? Prototype Soviet-era family saloon? Project by a class of 6-year olds to build a robotic apple-picking device? The Lunokhod rovers were indeed marvels of 1970’s engineering, mainly because one look at them leaves you absolutely convinced that they should have been smashed to smithereens on impact, (if, that is, they survived being shaken to a small pile of interesting metal shapes on take-off), and certainly should never have been able to explore an alien world. But then if you’ve ever been in a car from the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain (for example a Moskvitch or a Trabby) you’ll probably already know that anything is possible in a worker’s paradise.

One has to admire the Soviet scientists involved in the project for keeping going long after it became obvious that they had designed something William Heath Robinson would have disregarded as ridiculous. If the thing in the photograph above were presented to a news conference by NASA, several journalists would be hospitalized due to excessive laughter.

The Moskvitch 408: another triumph of 1970s Soviet engineering .
The Moskvitch 408: another triumph of 1970s Soviet engineering .

Lunokhod 2 is still on the Moon, of course, and can to this day be detected by laser ranging experiments. It is now in private hands, having been bought at auction in 1993 by astronaut’s son and computer gaming entrepreneur Richard Garriott. This made him the only individual on Earth to own a spacecraft situated on a celestial body other than this one. I believe he also owns the Luna 21 lander and an actual Sputnik.


1893 – Main belt asteroid 353 Ruperto-Carola discovered by Max Wolf and named after the University of Heidelberg (full name Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, or in Latin Ruperto Carola).


1903 – Asteroid 500 Selinur discovered by Max Wolf. It was named after a Celtic moon goddess, a character in German author Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s 1879 novel Auch Einer.


2017 – Death of Gene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut (and therefore the last human at timd of writing) to walk on the Moon.

January 02 – Launch of Luna 1 (1959)

Luna 1 was launched by the USSR (Russia) on January 2nd 1959, and was intended to be the first spacecraft to impact the Moon. Unfortunately for the Soviet scientists involved in the program an error back on the ground caused the rocket carrying it to burn for too long, changing the trajectory and sending the payload hurtling past the target at about 6000 km distance. The result was that on January 4th 1959, Luna 1 entered a heliocentric (around the Sun) orbit between Earth and Mars, becoming, I suppose, the first artificial planet. It’s still up there, completing an orbit of the Sun every 450 days, and will probably remain there for a very long time.

Replica of Luna 1 (image: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Replica of Luna 1 (image: RIA Novosti archive, image #510848 / Alexander Mokletsov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Despite missing the target, Luna 1 did provide some useful information. It was able to measure the solar wind for the first time, and discovered that the Moon has no detectable magnetic field.

Our photograph today is of a replica of Luna 1, so you should probably ignore the huge stalk sticking out of the bottom.


1905 – Discovery of Jupiter’s eighth largest moon, Elara, by Charles Dillon Perrine. For some reason Elara didn’t receive its present name until 1975.