May 15 – Launch of Mercury-Atlas-9 (MA-9)

May 15th 1963 was launch day for Mercury-Atlas-9, the last of the crewed US Mercury program, and the last time an American astronaut was sent into orbit alone. There were also a couple of firsts, including the first American astronaut to spend an entire day in space, and the first to sleep in space.

That astronaut was Leroy Gordon Cooper (he preferred Gordon or “Gordo” to Leroy), World War II US Marine Corps veteran, fighter pilot and test pilot, and just the kind of man, as you can probably see from his official photo, to think nothing of being hurled round the planet in a hi-tech tin can.

Leroy Gordon Cooper, MA-9 Astronaut. (Image: NASA)

The MA-9 orbiter, known as Faith 7, spent just over 34 hours off the ground, in which time it managed 22 orbits of the Earth (almost 900,000 km) before splashing down South East of Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. Somehow, despite a series of technical issues, including the loss of altitude readings and a short circuit that took out the automatic stabilization system, Cooper was able to manufacture the most accurate splashdown of the entire program.

Gordon Cooper being peeled out of Faith 7. (Image: NASA)

2006 — Launch of PAMELA, the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei Astrophysics (obviously) attached to the Russian Recurs-DK 1 reconnaissance satellite.


May 14 – Discovery of Asteroid196 Philomela

Asteroid 196 Philomela was discovered by Christian Heinrich Friedrich Peters at Hamilton College, Clinton (New York) on May 14th 1879.  It is a large, bright, S-type (stony) main belt asteroid, and studies of light curve data have decided it is smooth and asymmetrically shaped.

Philomela and Procne showing Itys'head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses
Philomela and Procne showing Itys’ head to Tereus. Engraving by Bauer for a 1703 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Philomela was the daughter of King Pandium I of Athens, and had a sister called Procne.  Procne’s husband, Tereus, raped Philomela, and according to Ovid, cut out her tongue.  To get her revenge Philomela wove a tapestry (she couldn’t just write it down?) telling her story, and sent it to her sister.  Procne took the news badly, killing her son by Tereus, boiling him, and serving him to her husband.

Tereus failed to see the funny side, and pursued the sisters with the aim of killing them.  But they prayed to the gods for assistance, and were transformed into birds (Procne a swallow, and Philomela a nightingale).

1917 –  Discovery of main belt asteroid 871 Amneris (a character in the opera Aida) by Max Wolf at the Heidelberg Observatory.  Amneris is now known to have its own small family of 20 or so asteroids.

1973   –   Unmanned launch of Skylab, the first orbiting space station of the United States.  Although the final manned mission left the station in 1974, Skylab remained potentially operational, and the plan was to move it into a higher orbit using the space shuttle.  Unfortunately the development of the shuttle took longer than planned, so NASA were forced to allow Skylab to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

2009   –   Launch of PLANCK by ESA and the Herschel Space Observatory (a joint mission by NASA and ESA). PLANCK was equipped with instruments to detect at infrared and microwave, while Herschel was the largest infrared telescope ever launched, with a primary mirror measuring 11 feet in diameter. Herschel’s mission ended on 29th April 2013, when the liquid helium needed to cool it’s instruments ran out. PLANCK lasted a little longer, being told to shut down on 23rd October the same year.

At time of writing (May 2019, the ESA/PLANCK website was still up and running.

Last updated: May, 2019.

May 07 – Launch of SAS C (Explorer 53)

Wow. I just looked on my WordPress page and saw that the latest entry under “recently published” is dated Sept 13th 2017. I never realised I could be quite as lazy as this. It’s time for an update.

Today in 1902 asteroid 485 Genua was discovered at Heidelberg Observatory by Italian astronomer Luigi Carnera (1875-1962). Genua is a main belt asteroid of about 64km diameter, and is one of 16 discovered by Carnera, all of which happened in the years 1901 and 1902, while he was under the spell of legendary asteroid hunter Max Wolf. Carnera himself had to wait until 1995 before having anasteroid named in his honour (number 39653).

May 7th 1975 saw the launch, from the San Marco offshore platform in Kenya, via a Scout launch vehicle, of SAS-C, also known as SAS-3 or Explorer 53. The primary mission of this small astronomical satellite was to measure various X-ray sources, using four experiments. The Extra-Galactic Experiment (EGE) was used to pinpoint very weak X-ray sources beyond the Milky Way; the Galactic Monitor Experiment (GME) measured variations in intensity of sources whose position had been determined using EGE; the Scorpio Monitor Experiment (SME) was pointed specifically at the strongest known source of X-rays in the known universe (Scorpius X-1), and the Galactic Absorption Experiment (GAE) measured the density of interstellar matter using variations in the X-ray background.

SAS C (image credit: NASA)
SAS C (image credit: NASA)

Today also marks the launch the shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-49 to retrieve and relaunch the intelsat 603 satellite. The mission was a success, and included the first ever 3-astronaut EVA (spacewalk).

Crew of Endeavour mission STS-49 (image credit: NASA)
Crew of Endeavour mission STS-49 (image credit: NASA)

Last updated: May 08, 2019.

September 12 – Gemini XI

Gemini XI, launched on September 12th 1966, was the 17th manned US spaceflight, and the 9th manned flight of the Gemini programme. It was crewed by Charles “Pete” Conrad and Richard “Dick” Gordon. The main aim of the mission was to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, to simulate the return of a Lunar Module to the Command/Service Module following a landing. Several such rendezvous were performed successfully, as well as two periods of extra-vehicular activity (that’s space walks to you and me).

The Crew of Gemini XI
The Crew of Gemini XI (image credit: NASA)

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Asteroid 59 Elpis  is a rather large, dark (albedo 0.04) C-type asteroid in the main belt. It has a diameter of 165 km.  Elpis was discovered by Jean Chacornac on September 12th 1860 (it was his last find). The name Elpis was chosen by Karl L Lithow, director of the Vienna Observatory. Elpis is the personification of ‘hope’ in Greek mythology, and was supposedly the only item left in Pandora’s pithos (jar, not box) after she had emptied it.

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Firstly, asteroid 117 Lomia was discovered by Alphonse Borrelly on September 12th 1871 from Marseilles. It has a nearly circular orbit, and in composition is somewhere between a C-type and an X-type. The origin of the name is unknown.

And secondly, asteroid 241 Germania (C-type, main belt) was discovered today in 1884 by Robert Luther in Düsseldorf. He named it, obviously, after his homeland.  I was tempted here to insert a photograph of a moustachioed general in a uniform and spiky helmet, but I resisted. No racial stereotypes here.

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September 05 – Voyager 1

Launched September 5th 1977, Voyager 1 is now, 40 years later, 20 billion km (132 AU) from the Sun, and still working.  I say from the Sun because it sometimes gets closer to the earth due to the speed of this planet around our star.  It has recently been announced that Voyager 1 has finally reached interstellar space, although as it is still some years from the inner edge of the Oort Cloud, I’m not so sure.

Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)
Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

I won’t say too much here about what Voyager 1 achieved, because there will be other opportunities for that on the anniversaries of its encounters with Jupiter (April 13) and Saturn (December 14).

All we need to mention here is the launch, via a Titan launch vehicle (that’s a rocket to you and me) from Cape Canaveral, two weeks after Voyager 2. Voyager 1, following a shorter trajectory, reached Jupiter and Saturn first though, so the numbering system makes sense.

Launch of Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)
Launch of Voyager 1 (image credit: NASA)

The timing of the Voyager missions was spookily convenient. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune line up in such a way as to optimise a “gravity assist” flyby of all four every 175 years. This alignment coincided nicely with the technology necessary for the flight becoming available in the late 1970s. Even so, the cost of building a spacecraft capable of definitely making it as far as Neptune was so great that most of the effort went into ensuring a successful mission as far as Saturn, with finger-crossing and prayer being employed for the remainder of the trip.

As it happened, of course, they both turned out to be even more reliable than a Lexus, and they, with their golden discs, continue to carry greetings from Earth, and the music of Chuck Berry, to the edge of the Solar System and beyond. (Did anybody ever stop to consider whether Johnny B. Goode might be a declaration of war on some planets?)

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December 30 – Launch of RXTE

December 30th seems to be a thin day astronomically, but I did manage to find, in 1995, the launch of the Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer from Cape Canaveral.  Bruno Rossi, after whom the satellite was named, was the discoverer of the first source of x-rays beyond the Sun.

Artist's Impression of RXTE
Artist’s Impression of RXTE

Over a sixteen year lifespan, RXTE did exactly what its name suggests: it timed variations in emissions from x-ray sources using three experiments (a proportional counter array, theHigh Energy X-ray Timing Experiment, and an all-sky monitor).

Also today, in 1924, Edwin Hubble announced to the world that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy.  Using the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson, Hubble was able to calculate the distance to Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda Galaxy using a technique devised by Harvard astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.  At the time, “spiral nebulae” were assumed to be patches of dust or gas within the Milky Way, but calculating a distance to Andromeda of approximately 860,000 light years changed the scale of the Universe for ever.


December 27 – Johannes Kepler

Today is Johannes Kepler’s birthday.

Kepler was born in Weil der Stadt, a small town near Stuttgart, on December 27th 1571, and was introduced to astronomy from an early age, whether he liked it or not, by being taken outside to witness the Great Comet of 1577, C/1577 V1, at age 6. The comet was also seen, incidentally, by Tycho Brahe, with whom Kepler would later spend some time studying at the site of Brahe’s new observatory near Prague.

Johannes Kepler
Johannes Kepler

Kepler’s works included many revolutionary (and I mean that in several ways) publications on the behaviour of planets. His Astronomia Nova, published in 1609, contained arguments in favour of a heliocentric ‘universe’, and Harmonia Mundi (“The Harmony of the World”, 1619) was the setting for his third law of planetary motion.

As well as being an influential astronomer, Kepler was also a major influence in the field of optics (possibly because his own eyesight wasn’t the best). He was the first person to explain how a telescope works; worked out how our eyes perceive depth; investigated how a pin hole camera might be used to produce pictures, and discovered total internal reflection.

Also today, globular cluster Messier 92 was discovered in 1777 by Johann Elert Bode.

M92 (Photo courtesy of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma)
M92 (Photo credit: the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma)

M92 is located in the constellation of Hercules. It is one of the oldest and brightest globular clusters, and is about 27,000 light years from Earth.

1968 – Splashdown, south of Hawaii, of Apollo 8, following a 6 day flight that included the first Earthrise seen by humans, and the first Christmas broadcast from a craft orbiting the Moon.


December 19 – Asteroid 397 Vienna

Asteroid 397 Vienna was discovered by Auguste Charlois on December 19th, 1894. It is an S-type main belt asteroid of about 43 km diameter. There are no prizes for guessing the origin of the name.

In the 1960’s, the only way to spy from above on your decadent imperialist western enemies was to send collections of cameras into orbit, shoot a few rolls of film, bring the whole thing back down, and hope you could make it land in a suitable place for retrieval.
Kosmos 24 (also known officially, but less publically, as Zenit 2, Number 15) was one such Soviet reconnaissance satellite, launched on December 19th, 1963, and recovered by the military nine days later. The launch took place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome via a Vostok 2 rocket, and as far as anyone is aware it was a success.

Kosmos 24

There were over 500 Zenit 2 launches, mostly carrying four cameras, with each camera capable of shooting 1500 frames. And what I didn’t know until very recently was that the Zenit camera I owned in the late 1970’s was made by the same company who manufactured the equipment for the Kosmos satellites. I Wish I’d kept it.

2013 – Launch of the Gaia Space Observatory.


December 18 – Epimetheus

Saturn’s moon Epimetheus, discovered today in 1966 by Richard Walker, is a non-identical twin.  It, and its larger brother, Janus, which had been discovered three days previously by Audouin Dollfus, fly round Saturn in almost identical orbits (their mean orbital radii differ by a mere 50km or so).  Obviously, at the time of discovery, with only  the evidence of Earth-based telescopes to go by, this caused a certain amount of confusion among astronomers trying to work out where the supposed new single moon was.  At the time it was thought, also fairly obviously,  highly unlikely that two moons would share the same orbit without hitting each other.

Epimetheus from the Cassini Orbiter (image: NASA/JPL/SSI)
Epimetheus from the Cassini Orbiter (image: NASA/JPL/SSI)

It is possible that at some time in the past Epimetheus and Janus were part of a single larger body, but if that is the case it is likely to have been a very long time ago.  Both are heavily cratered, and their surface features display softening of their edges by the accumulation of dust, suggesting nothing much has changed there for some time.

Epimetheus was, in Greek mythology, a Titan (nowadays the name of a rather larger Saturnian moon), brother of Prometheus (also a moon of Saturn).  The pair were sons of Iapetus (another Saturnian satellite).  Epimethius was, according to some myths, married to Pandora (and guess what she gave her name to?).

Epithemius was given the job, shortly after the creation of the Earth, of finding a positive trait to give to each of the newly designed animals.  Unfortunately he ran out of good characteristics with one animal remaining, which you’ve probably already guessed was man.  That’s when Prometheus came along and gave  man the gift of fire, after which it all went downhill.

Epimetheus (3rd left) meets Pandora for the first time.
Epimetheus (3rd left) meets Pandora for the first time.

As it happens, though, they do share the orbit, and they don’t hit each other.  One moon does catch the other up every four years, but interactions between their gravities causes the inner moon to move faster (which causes it to move to a higher orbit) and the outer moon to slow down, causing its own orbit to drop a little.  So they actually exchange places, which is why I’m not going to call them the fifth and sixth moons, because they are each neither and both.

Launch, in 1958, of SCORE, the world’s first communications satellite (Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay Equipment).  The launch, from Cape Canaveral, was via an Atlas-B 10B rocket.

December 14 – Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe was born today in 1546 in Denmark. As the child of a wealthy family (he was born in a castle) he was well placed to receive a good education, and took up astronomy while studying law.

Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)
Tycho Brahe wearing the Order of the Elephant (and the Moustache of the Walrus)

Tycho made several leaps of the imagination, including the development of his own model of the solar system, which he nearly got right. He correctly deduced that the Moon orbits the Earth, and that the planets orbit the Sun. unfortunately he also decided that the Sun must orbit the earth; an easy mistake to make I suppose at that time, if you spend your entire life seeing it cross the sky thousands of times in front of your very eyes.

Tycho was also the first person to decide that novae (they weren’t called that at the time) originated further away than the Moon. The popular view was that the stars were fixed and unchanging, and anything that appeared in the sky had  to be closer than them. But Tycho noticed that a bright new star in Cassiopeia (now called SN1572) did not move against the background stars, and so must be farther away than all the objects that did. It sounds fairly reasonable to us, but in the 16th century the night sky was anything but obvious.

2009 – Launch of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) by NASA, on a mission  to map 99% of the sky. So far, it has found more than 33,000 asteroids and comets, over 200 Near-Earth Asteroids (including 43 potentially hazardous ones), the most luminous galaxy in the known universe, and numerous brown dwarfs.

2013  –  the Chinese Chang’E 3 mission lands on the Moon.

The Chang'E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)
The Chang’E Lunar Lander, imaged by the Yutu rover (image: China National Space Administration)