In 2011 and 2012, two new moons were discovered in orbit around Pluto. Called P4 and P5, the scientists who discovered the moons have put up a poll asking internet users to select from one of twelve names (or to write in a suggestion) as to what the moons should be called. The choices, all of which have a mythical tie to the underworld, are Acheron, Alecto, Cerberus, Erebus, Eurydice, Hercules, Hypnos, Lethe, Obol, Orpheus, Persephone, and Styx.
NASA manager Jesco von Puttkamer (b.1933) died on December 27 at his home. Von Puttkamer immigrated to the US in 1962 and joined Wernher von Braun’s team in Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked on Apollo. He also worked on the Skylab program and helped rescue the space station when it would have been sold for scrap after it deorbited. While working at NASA, he also served as a Technical Advisor to Paramount Pictures for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For more than a decade, von Puttkamer was responsible for the daily ISS Onorbit Status reports. In addition to published more than a dozen non-fiction books, he also published the Star Trek novelette “The Sleeping God.”
Astronomer Patrick Moore (b.1923) died at his home on December 9. Moore collaborated with artist David A. Hardy on the Hugo Award-nominated Futures: 50 Years in Space: The Challenge of the Stars. He served as the President of the British Astronomical Association and was the co-founder of the Society for Popular Astronomy. Moore was invited to run an observatory in East Grinstead when he was only 14.
Scientists have discovered a planet only slightly larger than Earth in orbit around Alpha Centauri, only 4.37 light years from Earth (only Proxima Centauri is closer). The planet, which was discovered based on fluctuations in the star’s movement, orbits closer to its primary than Mercury does and completes an orbit every three days. The discovery was made using data from La Silla Observatory in Chile and will be officially announced in Nature on October 17.
NASA has announced that SpaceX has been given permission to dock the Dragon capsule with the International Space Station. The Dragon will be carried aloft by the Falcon 9 Rocket on February 7, contingent on final safety reviews, testing and verification of the craft.
Astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were honored on November 16 when they were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda. The medals were presented by Representatives John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi and Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award in the United States. Glenn flew into space twice, on the third Mercury mission and on STS-95. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins flew on the first lunar landing mission and each also flew on a Gemini mission. The Apollo astronauts received the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1969.
Asteroid 2005 YU55 is scheduled to pass within approximately 201,700 miles of the Earth on November 8, closer than the Moon’s orbit but further away than many other recent asteroid passes. However, 2005 YU55 is 1,300 feet across, making it the largest asteroid to pass the Earth since 1976, although it doesn’t pose any danger. The next known large asteroid to pass near Earth won’t happen until 2028.
British amateur Astronomer Nick Howes is leading a search to find Snoopy, the lunar module used by the Apollo 10 crew to fly within 8.5 miles of the lunar surface. Following the mission, the module was jettisoned into a solar orbit while the crew returned to Earth in the command module, Charlie Brown.