Many of us are busy filling up our calendars for the coming warm weather, and I mean literally writing in a calendar, like I do in an astronomy desk calendar I’ve bought for a few decades.
Like most specialty calendars, my “The Year in Space” desk calendar is full of events that happened in history on each day of the year. So, I picked a date this week to highlight the wide range of fascinating space things that happened:
March 6th: 1787 scientist Joseph Fraunhofer born; 1937 cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova born; 1986, Russia’s Vega 1 flies by Halley’s Comet; 2009 Kepler Observatory launched; 2015 NASA’s Dawn orbits dwarf planet Ceres.
Each person and event were significant in changing the way we look at outer space. Let’s look at these events all happening on 6th day of March.
Who is the old man of the bunch, Joseph Fraunhofer? High school science students work with diffraction gratings over light to reveal a rainbow of colors. Discovered by the Bavarian physicist Joseph Ritter von Fraunhofer, most people are familiar with the dark lines in the “spectrum” strip of colored light from any source.
Each element has its own black, Fraunhofer lines in its spectrum, like a fingerprint for each of the 118 elements on the Periodic Table of chemistry. Fraunhofer was born March 6, 1787 and died June 7, 1826. He also invented the spectroscope and the achromatic refracting telescope lens.
March 6th is also the 1937 birthday of Russian national space hero Valentina Tereshkova. She’s the only female to make a solo spaceflight in the first 50 years of spaceflight, her June 1963, three-day spaceflight in the cramped Vostok 6 spacecraft eclipsing the time in space by all six American Mercury spaceflights.
What the Communist propaganda machine of the 1960s hid from the free world was the fact that the first six cosmonauts in space all ejected from their Vostok spacecraft after the fiery reentry, landing by parachute on their feet separate from the vehicle they orbited Earth. The reason was landlocked Russia had no oceans to land safely, and the retro-rockets that blasted to break the fall on land were being developed. Those secrets were slowly revealed after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
In 1963, Tereshkova was a 26-year-old textile factory worker who loved to skydive. She was chosen to orbit the Earth by the regime of Communist President Nikita Khrushchev to show the superiority of Russian women to world. With another cosmonaut Vostok 5 orbiting Earth at the same time, Tereshkova spent three days on autopilot, doing little except talking on the radio to passing countries and taking photos of Earth.
Tereshkova has enjoyed a lifetime of fame. She married the third cosmonaut in space, Andriyan Nikolayev, and they had a “space girl,” who became a doctor. The lady cosmonaut was a long-time member of the government leadership, and she lit the Olympic Flame at the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
Everyone knows Halley’s Comet, the most famous of those icy boulders in our Solar System that astronomers call “dirty snowballs.” The last time Halley’s Comet passed by Earth was in 1986, and one of the spacecraft to fly by close-up was Vega 1, built by the Russian Space Agency.
Vega 1 was an amazing mission, first passing by Venus and dropping off a lander and atmospheric balloon, then continuing to Halley’s Comet. An armada of a half-dozen spacecraft headed to the famous comet, and Vega 1 was first, providing important targeting data for the others.
Finally, on March 6, 2015 an amazing spacecraft called Dawn began orbiting the largest body in the asteroid belt, Ceres. Reclassified as a “dwarf planet” (with Pluto and a half-dozen other small, atmospherically active worlds), Ceres, 590 miles across, was the second object Dawn visited in the asteroid belt, having spent a year in 2011-12 flying around and in formation with asteroid Vesta, smaller at 329 miles, The spacecraft’s name is not one of those NASA acronyms, it literally stands for the “dawn” of new discovery. And spacecraft Dawn had lots mind-blowing data for its planetary scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif.
Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, a rubble zone of millions of rocks, mostly a dozen or less miles in size, that orbit 100-300 million miles from the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. The dwarf planet is a fascinating world with three very reflective spots of dried salts, betraying a possible sub-surface ocean beneath the cratered crust. Several craters are filled with an atmosphere of water vapor from outgassing of ice below. And a salt water and mud volcano 2.5 miles high looks like Devil’s Tower in the Black Hills of Wyoming.
A little history from just one day of the year and look at all the wealth of knowledge!