Category Archives: Space

Hi, Dr. Nick!

A big hello from SFTS to astronaut  Dr. Nicholas Patrick, who’s aboard the current Shuttle mission to the International Space Station. He’ll be carrying out three spacewalks during the mission, helping to fit new modules including the station’s snazzy new observation dome. Nick officially opened our revamped Space gallery a few years ago – here he is with our replica of the Apollo 11 lunar module.

Nick says that watching the Apollo 11 landing as a child inspired him to become an astronaut (Image: Science Museum)

Astronauts are allowed to take some personal items with them. Nick has chosen some memorabilia of Captain Cook, one of his inspirations – he spent his early years in North Yorkshire, close to where Cook was born. And the Shuttle being flown on this mission is Endeavour, named after Cook’s most famous ship.

Shuttle Endeavour lifting off... (Image: NASA / Science & Society)

Shuttle Endeavour lifts off ... (Image: NASA / Science & Society)

... and a model of the original.

... and a model of its namesake. (Image: Science Museum)

Twitter users can get news direct from onboard Endeavour by following Nick’s tweets, or checking out his crewmate Soichi Noguchi’s spectacular images of the Earth from above.

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!

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.

Destruction and discovery – the V2 engine

The V2 rocket engine was the first ballistic missile, built by the Nazis to fire missiles at London, but that wasn’t the only part it had to play in history.


V2 Rocket

It could travel at three times the speed of sound and was the first man-made object that had the capability to reach space.

On the 16 July, 1969 the Apollo 11 mission allowed the first men to walk on the moon. The Saturn V rockets which took up each of the Apollo craft used six J2 engines – developed from the V2 by some of the designers that worked on the V2.

Apollo 10

Apollo 10

So how did Wernher von Braun, the designer of a powerful German weapon then design the engine that helped America land on the moon?

As World War II was ending, Von Braun surrendered to American troops. Von Braun and his team were moved to Fort Bliss, Texas, under the top secret Operation Paperclip.

The V2 was chosen as one of our centenary icons, because it launched us into space. But as the power behind the first long-range missiles, it also threatened to destroy our world. An engine of war and discovery, these rockets have a legacy that still looms over us today. You can see them both in our Exploring Space gallery.

V2-J2 Engine

V2 and J2 engine