Category Archives: Astronomy

Money, money, money

Lots of talk about the budget this week – and science funding is still uncertain. But as these examples from our Cosmos & Culture exhibition show, astronomers have always had to rely on a combination of persuasion, impressive results and skilled PR to keep their work funded.

Tycho Brahe's Stjerneborg observatory (Science Museum)

Tycho Brahe’s observations of the ‘new star’ of 1572 (a supernova explosion) impressed the Danish King Frederick II. He subsidised Tycho’s research by building the finest astronomical observatory of the times. The next King stopped the subsidy, so Tycho left for Prague to work for the German emperor Rudolf II – an early example of the ‘brain drain’.

1:200 scale model of the Lovell radio telescope at Jodrell Bank (Science Museum)

It’s one of Britain’s most striking landmarks, but Jodrell Bank‘s giant Lovell Telescope almost didn’t make it. In the 1950s, under a Government investigation into the spiralling costs of construction, it seemed that it would be abandoned. But it turned out that the telescope could track the newly-launched Soviet satellites, and it became strategically important. In 2008, the telescope again faced losing funding. One joker put it up for sale on eBay. It was given a reprieve, and continues to be used for important research.

Hubble Space Telescope after assembly, 1980s (NASA / Science & Society)

Hubble is probably the most famous telescope ever – but it took many years to get off the ground. Work began in the 1970s. The US Congress insisted that NASA’s plans be scaled back, and the telescope had to be down-sized. But astronomers lobbied for funds, the European Space Agency came on board, and a 1986 launch looked possible. Then, the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded after the Challenger explosion. Hubble had to wait in clean storage, with costs mounting, until 1990. But since then, with five servicing missions to keep it upgraded, it’s been a huge success. You can follow the story of the last servicing mission in our new IMAX movie.

When Irish skies are smiling

As today is St Patrick’s Day and I’m of the Paddy persuasion myself, here are a few objects with Irish links in our astronomy collection.

Rowley's original orrery, 1712 (Science Museum)

This is one of the earliest mechanical models of the Solar System, on display in Science in the 18th Century. It was made for the 4th Earl of Orrery, Charles Boyle. His County Cork title gave its name to subsequent planetary models.

Another Irish peer with a keen interest in astronomy was William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse.  He built several telescopes at his castle in County Offaly. The largest, known as the Leviathan of Parsonstown, was the world’s biggest telescope for over 70 years. You can see its six-foot  mirror in Cosmos & Culture, or visit the reconstructed telescope at Birr Castle.

The Rosse Mirror, 1842-45 (Science Museum)

There’s one big snag with building a telescope in Ireland – rain. Lots of it. Many of Lord Rosse’s visitors moaned about ruined observing nights. But during some rare breaks in the clouds, Rosse was able to observe nebulae, hazy patches of sky that had been puzzling astronomers for years. Thanks to the great mirror’s light-gathering power, he could see that some had spiral structures. We now know they are galaxies beyond our own. (Today, ‘nebula’ has a different meaning in astronomy).

Another telescope used to study nebulae was Isaac Roberts’ twin equatorial telescope. Its 20-inch reflecting telescope and stand were made by Grubb of Dublin.

Twin equatorial telescope, 1885 (Science Museum)

And finally, since it’s customary to celebrate Paddy’s Day with a drop of the black stuff, here’s a  photo of the black drop effect. Sláinte!

The black drop effect is sometimes seen when Venus transits the Sun. (Statis Kalyvas and VT-2004, used with permission)

Lord of the Rings?

This week in 1977, astronomers discovered faint rings around Uranus. Or did they? It’s just possible that William Herschel beat them to it by almost 200 years. Herschel’s notes for February 22, 1789 say ‘A ring was suspected’. It was assumed he was mistaken, but Dr Stuart Eves, inspired by one of our objects, has a theory that could explain Herschel’s observations.

Herschel in 1794. (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

A few years ago, Stuart visited our Blythe House store to see this orrery, or planetary model – the only surviving one of this design.

Orrery made by John Fidler to a design by William Pearson, 1813-22 (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

It shows Uranus with six moons. Herschel discovered the innermost two, Titania and Oberon, in 1787. By 1794 he had reported four additional satellites. However, no other astronomer managed to see them and observations in the 1850s showed Herschel was mistaken and may have been looking at background stars near the planet.

Wanting to know more about this, Stuart studied Herschel’s papers, which is where he found the 1789 reference to the ring, and also one from 1792 referring to ’a very faint ray, like a ring crossing the planet, over the centre’.

So if Herschel did see a ring, how come nobody else managed to until 1977? Well, Stuart’s theory is that if this ring behaves like Saturn’s rings then it might be getting darker and more diffuse, making it harder to see. Plus, the ring is only visible at certain alignments.

Herschel's 20ft telescope (Credit: Science Museum / SSPL)

Herschel's 20ft telescope (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

But could Herschel really have seen a ring using his 20ft telescope, a giant of the time but diminutive by today’s standards? Well, he built the best telescopes of his era, and was a meticulous observer. So maybe, just maybe… We’ll never know for sure, but it shows what a visit to our stores can trigger!

A 1998 Hubble Space Telescope image of the rings of Uranus (Credit: NASA / Science & Society)

Moon Man Nasmyth

While growing up, when I wasn’t busy playing with hammers, I was intrigued by the Moon and I would act out Lego explorations of the Lunarscape. Two interests that that I have in common with engineer James Hall Nasmyth – whose invention of the steam hammer I explored in an earlier post.

Astronomy was one of Nasmyth’s passions and when he retired in 1856, he had more time to devote to scientific investigation.

He used this 20-inch reflecting telescope for looking at the Moon and Sun.

Nasmyth's 20 inch reflecting telescope (Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

I first came across it on a visit to our Blythe House store, and I was drawn to the huge grey iron lump of a telescope amongst a display of slender wood and brass ones. You can really see his history in making industrial machinery.

Nasmyth used his chunky telescope to make detailed drawings and plaster models of his observations, and co-wrote a book with James Carpenter called The Moon, Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite.

It was impossible at the time to photograph all that he could see through his telescope, so instead he photographed his plaster models for use in the book.

Plaster relief model of a portion of the Moon

Plaster relief model of a portion of the Moon by James Nasmyth (Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

So two of our museum objects – a massive hammer and a lumpy telescope – have led to me on a journey through the story of James Hall Nasmyth. I jumped for joy last year when I saw that that same lumpy telescope was taken from storage and put on display as the entrance piece of our new Cosmos & Culture exhibition.

Nasmyth's telescope at the entrance of Cosmos & Culture

Nasmyth's telescope at the entrance of Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum)

Finding Pluto

Eighty years ago today, a young American astronomer discovered tiny Pluto. Clyde Tombaugh was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.

Tombaugh spent months painstakingly photographing the same sections of sky and studying the images with a blink comparator. On 18 Feburary 1930, he noticed that on photographs taken a few nights apart that January, one ‘star’ had moved, indicating that it was actually a nearby object moving against the fixed background of distant stars. Further observations confirmed the discovery, which was announced to the world that March.

This Lowell Observatory photograph announcing the discovery shows Pluto marked with arrows. (Image: Science Museum)

Despite the fanfare, Pluto turned out not to be Planet X – Tombaugh had just been looking in the right place at the right time. Subsequent observations revealed that Pluto was too small to match the predictions. Eventually, revised calculations of Netpune and Uranus’s orbits removed the need for Planet X altogether.

Things got worse for Pluto by the 2000s, with astronomers discovering a slew of similarly-sized bodies beyond Neptune. Either our Solar System had a lot more planets than anyone had realised, or it was time to rethink what counts as a planet. On 24 August 2006 the International Astronomical Union voted on a new definition, demoting Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’.

‘Save Pluto’ campaigns were quick to follow. This bumper sticker was one of the first products to go on sale.

For ... (Image: Science Museum)

However, it didn’t take very long for someone to come up with a response:

... and against. (Image: Science Museum)

The IAU’s definition of ‘planet’ remains controversial, so there may be hope for Pluto yet. Because it’s so faraway and faint we still know very little about it, but a spacecraft called New Horizons is due to fly by in 2015. It’s carrying some of Tombaugh’s ashes.

You can see the bumper stickers and the photograph in Cosmos & Culture, while a detector for New Horizons is on display in Exploring Space.

Fly me to the Moon

With President Obama’s new NASA budget proposals to slash the Constellation programme, it might be a while longer before someone adds their footprints to the last left on the lunar surface by Gene Cernan in 1972. But in the meantime, here’s a virtual journey to the Moon, via our collections.

Galileo's maps of the Moon from Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), 1610.

The 28 day lunar cycle, from Kircher's Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), 1646

Pastel drawing of the Moon by John Russell, 1796

Plaster model of the lunar crater Archimedes, by James Nasmyth, 1850-1871

One of the reasons given for cancelling Constellation was lack of design innovation. Perhaps NASA’s engineers should take inspiration from this ingenious method of transport from 1648:

'The Man in the Moon', 1648

However and whenever they get there, the next visitors to the Moon are unlikely to encounter scenes like those in this lithograph, inspired by the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. In a series of increasingly outlandish articles, thought to have been written by reporter Richard Adams Locke in an attempt to boost circulation, The New York Sun reported that astronomer John Herschel had turned his powerful new telescope to the Moon and discovered lush vegetation, beavers walking on two legs, and bat-people. There was even a temple made of sapphire, which might have gone some way towards balancing NASA’s budget…

New discoveries on the Moon, c. 1838

Astronomers without borders

With last week’s opening of 1001 Inventions, we’ve been celebrating cross-cultural collaboration, and astronomy has plenty of examples. At the entrance to the exhibition you can see a display of objects from our collections, including this astrolabe made by Jamal al-Din in Lahore in 1666. The astrolabe is a two-dimensional model of the universe that can be held in your hand. It is also a beautiful demonstration of the way knowledge is shared between cultures.

Astrolabe by Jamal al-Din, 1666 (Image: Science Museum)

The first astrolabes were probably developed by the Ancient Greeks. From the 8th century onwards, the instrument was improved by Islamic scholars who took it as far as India and China. The astrolabe was reintroduced to Europe via Moorish Spain. By the 17th century the craftsmen of the Low Countries were producing elaborate instruments like this one.

An astrolabe that can’t be held in your hand is the Yantra Raj, one of the instruments at the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India. This giant stone observatory was built for accuracy rather than portability, to help improve the calendar. In 18th-century India people used a combination of the lunar-based Muslim and the solar-based Hindu systems. Both relied on observations made centuries earlier, so became increasingly unreliable. Jaipur’s ruler, Jai Singh II, commissioned the new observatory. This model, on display in Cosmos & Culture , shows one instrument called the Rashivalaya Yantra, with sundials to track the Sun through each zodiac sign.

Model of part of the Jaipur observatory (Image: Science Museum)

The observatory at Jaipur is just one of the examples that historian Simon Schaffer will be talking about during Space … a real frontier? at the Dana Centre next Thursday. He’ll be joined by Craig Underwood of Surrey Satellite Technology and our own Doug Millard as we explore celestial collaborations through the ages. There’s still time to book a ticket for the event, which also includes tours of 1001 Inventions and Cosmos & Culture – hope to see you there!

That was the year that was

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 has now been officially ‘closed’ at a ceremony in Padova (timed to celebrate Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons, which you can read about in a previous blog). It’s been a really successful global project, with 148 countries signing up and thousands of people around the world taking part in events ranging from backyard observing to major international collaborations.

Much of the material produced in 2009 carries the distinctive astronomy year logo (Credit: IYA2009)

Much of the material produced in 2009 carries the distinctive astronomy year logo (Credit: IYA2009)

The participants of IYA2009 produced a huge amount of promotional and outreach material – posters, stamps, coins, calendars, T-shirts, badges, books,  movies, and much more. And we’re teaming up with the International Astronomical Union to ensure that some of this is preserved.

Obviously it’s not feasible for us to collect everything, but we’d like the ‘Official IYA2009 Collection’ to be a representative sample of the fantastic activities carried out around the world last year, showing the different ways that the national nodes celebrated astronomy. (For example, in Italy the focus was unsurprisingly on Galileo, whereas here in the UK we made a point of mentioning that Thomas Harriot beat him to the first astronomical observation with a telescope).

The material will form part of the Museum’s permanent collections, providing a ‘snapshot’ of how people viewed astronomy around the world in the early 21st century.

The lovely people at the IAU have volunteered to collect material on the Museum’s behalf. If you’ve got something that you think might be of interest, you can join in here before 28 February. Thanks!

By Jove!

Four hundred years ago today (well, tonight) Galileo Galilei trained his telescope on Jupiter and spotted what looked like three stars nearby. The next night he looked again, and the stars had changed position. Tracking their motion over the next week, he established that there were four of these ‘stars’, and they were in fact moons orbiting the planet. In March 1610 he published his observations in Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger). It was a small book – if you get a chance, you can visit the Cosmos & Culture exhibition to see how little our library‘s copy is – but it had a huge impact.

Jupiter (marked as the large star) with the satellites moving around it. (Image: Science Museum)

Pages from Sidereus Nuncius showing Jupiter (marked as the large star) with the satellites moving around it. (Image: Science Museum)

Since then, many more telescopes have turned towards the Solar System’s biggest planet – this beautiful lithograph by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot, part of a series he made at American observatories, shows how Jupiter appeared on 1 November 1880.

Jupiter and its cloud belts. Two of the moons appear as black spots. (Image: Science Museum)

Several spacecraft have also visited the Jovian system, including one named after Galileo. This close-up of the Great Red Spot was taken by Voyager 1 in 1979.

Voyagers view of Jupiters great storm (Image: NASA / Science & Society)

Voyager's view of Jupiter's great storm (Image: NASA / Science & Society)

Next year, NASA is heading back to Jupiter, with the Juno misson. But you’ll have to wait a while for the first images from the snappily-titled JunoCam, as the spacecraft won’t get there until 2016. In the meantime, why not take a look yourself? Jupiter is visible to the naked eye, and if you’ve got access to binoculars or a small telescope you’ll see the Galilean satellites. So if you want to follow in Galileo’s footsteps tonight, Jupiter is best seen shortly after sunset from the UK, although your observations might be scuppered by snow! If you’re reading this from the southern hemisphere (surely this blog has achieved global domination by now?!) you need to look shortly before sunset. At least you’ll be warm.

Or how about a gruesome Galileo fix? This spring, the wonderful Florence science museum will re-open after refurbishment. It’s going to be renamed the Museum Galileo, and one of the star exhibits will be the great man’s fingers and teeth.

This blog has gravity

Picture the scene. Two men are lurking at a London station, waiting for the Glasgow train. The train arrives and a third man disembarks, wheeling a suitcase. The three exchange some quick words of identification, the Londoners give the man from Glasgow an envelope of papers and he hands over the suitcase. The Londoners jump into a taxi with the suitcase … which contains a 23kg sapphire.

No, it’s not a scene from the latest Bond movie. The man on the Glasgow train was astronomer Martin Hendry and the others were my colleagues Doug and Chris. Martin’s department loaned us the sapphire for display, and rather than send our van the whole way to Glasgow and back we kept our carbon footprint down by arranging to  meet when Martin had to be in London anyway. Martin was back in London last weekend, and here he is with the sapphire in the Cosmos & Culture gallery.

Martin checks were taking care of his sapphire

Martin checks we're taking care of his sapphire

‘What sapphire?’ you might ask. If you were expecting something blue and multifaceted, look again. It’s the round clear object on the front shelf. It’s pure synthetic sapphire and it’s a test mass for an experiment called GEO600, which is using laser beams to try and detect gravitational waves, tiny ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein. To find out more about these types of experiment work, check out this video on our YouTube channel

Martin joined us to give a talk as part of our Cosmic Explorers Day event, which was supported by the Royal Astronomical Society as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 celebrations.  The day looked at how we make sense of space (or try to) and the enduring influence of Albert Einstein. But Einstein’s influence has spread far beyond astronomy – here’s a fun example from our collections.

An unusual use of Einsteins image (Credit: Science Museum)

An unusual use of Einstein's image (Credit: Science Museum)

Why use an image of a German-Swiss-American theoretical physicist to sell an Australian shoe spray?  Well, Einstein did have sweaty feet (which, along with varicose veins, got him out of doing Swiss national service) and famously never wore socks, but the packaging makes no reference to this. The famous image of the white-haired scientist seems to have been used to reinforce the makers’ claim that the spray is ‘scientifically proven’ to eliminate shoe odours, showing how Einstein has become the face of science for many. Martin evidently approves – look at his Tshirt – although we are sure he has very fragrant feet!