Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

Drayson Racing Car

Formula E: The Future of Racing

Pippa Hough, Assistant Content Developer in our Contemporary Science team, explores the new Formula E racing series.

Last month, we invited engineers from the Power Electronics Group to the Science Museum to share their latest research with our visitors. They are working on wireless charging systems to power up electric car batteries, and with them came the Drayson Racer, the fastest lightweight electric car in the world. This beautiful, green piece of precision engineering is fast; it broke records at 205mph and can go 0 to 60 in 3 seconds.

This week super speedy cars, much like the Drayson racer, will take part in Formula E; the first ever fully electric racing series, starting off in Beijing. The cars in Formula E aren’t quite as fast as the one we had on display, but with top speeds of 140mph it will definitely be entertaining to watch.

Drayson Racer, the fasted lightweight electric car in the world. Credit: Science Museum

Drayson Racer, the fasted lightweight electric car in the world. Credit: Science Museum

There are a few aspects of the Formula E that make it, in my opinion, the best type of racing there is:

Car Swapping

One of the major issues of electric cars is battery life. The racing cars used in Formula E can’t be charged quick enough at the pit stops so the drivers swap to a fully charged car. Given it’s a race the drivers need to hop out and into the other car within a minute. I think it provides an bonus ‘obstacle course’ like challenge that petrol racing really lacks.

Exotic Locations

Yes Formula 1 has exotic location, but Formula E has raised the game. The races will be in the heart of some of the most stunning capital cities in the world. Starting in the Olympic park in Beijing the championship will travel round to 10 cities including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Miami, and finishing up in central London in June 2015.

Futuristic Sounding

Electric cars engines are virtually silent. There’ll be no need for ear plugs while watching and given the city centre locations the races won’t be bothering the neighbours as much as petrol racing might. The sound Formula E cars make when racing has been described as anything from eerie to futuristic. They’re so quiet the engineers have to be warned with an air horn before the car come into the pit stops so they can get out of the way in time.


There’s virtually no interaction with the drivers for fans of racing, especially compared to other sports. The drivers can’t hear you cheering, not until they’re no the podium and by that time your encouragements don’t make any difference. Not so in Formula E, you can vote for your favourite driver before the race. The three most popular driver’s get a ‘power boost’ for their cars in the last leg of race.

Formula E will drive innovation in electric cars that’ll quickly trickle down to their domestic counterparts. In the not too distant future the wireless charging system the Power Electronics Group showed our visitors could be in parking spots all over the country ready to charge your electric car.

You can find out more about Formula E by watching the video below.

The Rubbish Collection by Joshua Sofaer

In the final post of our series linked to The Rubbish Collection the artist behind the project, Joshua Sofaer, looks back at a truly ambitious exhibition. 

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection is coming to an end. The Head of Exhibitions & Programmes at the Science Museum, Emily Scott-Dearing, asked me how I felt about it all. The truth is that now I just want to get to the end of it and for nothing to have gone wrong. I’m looking forward to looking back and for nobody to have succumbed to any of the long list of potential hazards that we had to consider on our lengthy risk assessment.

Joshua Sofaer in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Joshua Sofaer in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The project to document and display 30 days’ worth of Science Museum rubbish started several years ago. For the first years, I spent my time trying to convince scientists, curators, managers and pedagogues that it would be a fantastic idea to let members of the public get elbow deep in the museum rubbish before displaying it all in galleries that are normally reserved for precious and unique objects. Once they agreed I suddenly had a panic, as I was forced to seriously consider all the things that could go wrong: “But what if…?”

Volunteers sorting the Museum's rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Volunteers sorting the Museum’s rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the 30 days of the first phase with 4 assistants, 30 Science Museum volunteers and the help of over 400 visitors, we collected, laid out and documented all the rubbish produced by the Science Museum’s:
281,647 visitors
500+ staff and contractors
5 cafés
2 building sites
3 shops
2 Science Nights
1 Lates event
…and several storage cupboard clearances.

We had predicted that around 28 tonnes of rubbish would be thrown out but it was actually closer to 33 when we got the figures back from the Science Museum’s main waste contractor Grundon.

We brought over 18 tonnes of materials back to the gallery for the second phase of the exhibition, including:
7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels
2.4 tonnes of bottom ash aggregate
2.3 tonnes of glass sand
1.4 tonnes of wood
1 tonne of fertilizer
698 kilograms of steel
650 litres of dehydrated sewage sludge
291 breezeblocks made from air pollution control residue
…and nearly 1 tonne of various recycled plastics.

7.4 tonnes of paper and card in reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Items that we retained from the rubbish included:
3 fridges
1 dishwasher
3 kettles
3 wheelchairs
1 sleeping bag
1 mini snooker table
16.5 pairs of shoes
2 two-piece suits and ties
1 bra
1 negative pregnancy test
1 love letter
…and a crazy amount of disposable cutlery, usable stationery and discarded medicines.

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Whether disgusted or curious, everyone it would seem, has an opinion about rubbish. We are all throwers away. The psychological desire (and most often the psychological effect) of throwing something away, is to forget about it. We throw something away precisely because we don’t want to think about it any more. I have loved watching the faces of the Science Museum visitors as they realise that they are looking at what we have collectively tried to forget. There are moments of surprise and moments of recognition. Reactions have perhaps been strongest when confronted with the sewage.

The Italian artist Piero Manzoni cleverly played with the reverence that is accorded to the artist and the art object by producing a number of actions that resulted in sculptural provocations. Merda d’Artista (or Artist’s Shit) is what is says on the tin: 30g net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961. The performance is of the artist’s action that we are asked to imagine: that of him taking a dump. Manzoni places this object on a gallery plinth in a simultaneous act of gross self-aggrandisement and fierce condemnation of the gallery system. By making shit art, Manzoni cleverly manages to critique what he also aspires to (and has subsequently achieved), the reified status of the artist.

In the Science Museum we have on display not just a tin can but a large gallery vitrine full of human waste: 650 litres of dehydrated sewage. This is perhaps the ultimate waste, the stuff we really want to forget. But when our poo is pushed in our faces it asks us to think about what we choose to keep, what we choose to get rid of, and what happens to our stuff once it has left us.

Sludge cakes formed from a month's worth of the Museum's human waste © Glasshopper

Sludge cakes formed from a month’s worth of the Museum’s human waste © Glasshopper

I would like to thank the Science Museum for allowing this to happen. I would like to thank the many waste contractors who have been involved. I would like to thank all the assistants and volunteers who tirelessly sorted through bags of café waste late into the evening after the museum was shut. I would like to thank you, the Science Museum visitors for donning gloves and getting stuck in and also for throwing things out, without which there would have been no project. Only, paradoxically, that would be better: the very thing that this project has relied on – that people throw stuff away – is also the thing we want to reduce. Let’s work towards a time when a project like this is unnecessary or even impossible. Disposal is the last resort.

Continuing our look at climate and sustainability, our Antenna team will be bringing Bio-Bean – recently announced as winner of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge – to the Museum from next week. The Rubbish Collection continues until Sunday 14 September 2014.

30th Anniversary of DNA Fingerprinting

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

This fuzzy image, taken on 10 September 1984, launched a revolution; one that sent out shockwaves that can still be felt today. It is the first DNA fingerprint, taken on a Monday morning at the University of Leicester by Alec Jeffreys, now Sir Alec in recognition of his momentous achievement.

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

The fuzzy pattern that he recorded on an X-ray film was based on genetic material from one of his technicians, Vicky Wilson. At that time, Sir Alec was investigating highly repetitive zones of the human genetic code called “minisatellites”, where there is much variation from person to person. He wanted to study these hotspots of genetic change to find the cause of the DNA diversity that makes every human being on the planet unique.

Gazing at the X-ray film recording Wilson’s minisatellites, he thought to himself: “That’s a mess.”
But then, as he told me, “the penny dropped”. In this mess he stumbled on a kind of fingerprint, one which showed not only which parts of Wilson’s DNA came from her mother and which from her father, but also the unique genetic code that she possessed, one that was shared by no other human being on the planet.

In that Eureka moment, the science of DNA fingerprinting was born.

Sir Alec and his technician made a list of all the possible applications of genetic fingerprinting – but it was his wife, Sue, who spotted the potential for resolving immigration disputes, which in fact proved to be the first application.

An autoradiograph of the first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

An autoradiograph of the first genetic fingerprint, 1984 © Science Museum / SSPL

Soon after his discovery, Sir Alec was asked to help confirm the identity of a boy whose family was originally from Ghana. DNA results proved that the boy was indeed a close relation of people already in the UK. The results were so conclusive that the Home Office, after being briefed by the professor, agreed to drop the case and the boy was allowed to stay in the country, to his mother’s immense relief. “Of all the cases,” he recalls, “this is the one that means most to me.’’

Sir Alec is the first to admit that he never realised just how useful his work would turn out to be: in resolving paternity issues, for example, in studies of wildlife populations and, of course, in many criminal investigations (DNA fingerprinting was first used by police to identify the rapist and killer of two teenage girls murdered in Narborough, Leicestershire, in 1983 and in 1986 respectively).

Similar methods were used to establish the identity of the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele (using bone from the Nazi doctor’s exhumed skeleton), and to identify the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his family – in the course of which the Duke of Edinburgh gave a blood sample.

Sir Alec told the University recently: “The discovery of DNA fingerprinting was a glorious accident. It was best summarised in a school project that a grandson of mine did years ago: ‘DNA fingerprinting was discovered by my granddad when he was messing about in the lab’. Actually, you can’t describe it better than that – that is exactly what we were doing.”

Sir Alec has long been concerned about the world’s DNA databases. He describes how there needs to be a balance between the state’s rights to investigate and solve crime and an individual’s right to genetic privacy. “I take the very simple view that my genome is my own and nobody may access it unless with my permission.”

As for what happens next, Sir Alec says: ‘I’m now retired and consequently busier than ever.’

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

Bringing Maths to Life at the Science Museum

Today, we announced an ambitious new mathematics gallery that will open in 2016.

Our new gallery will be designed by the world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, who also designed the stunning Aquatics Centre used in the 2012 Olympics in London, and has been made possible by the largest individual donation ever made to the museum, an unprecedented £5 million gift from David and Claudia Harding.

Dame Zaha Hadid, David and Claudia Harding, and Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, joined our Director, Ian Blatchford, and the gallery’s curator, David Rooney, to announce the news this morning.

David Harding, Dame Zaha Hadid, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Ian Blatchford and Claudia Harding (L-R) announcing the new Maths Gallery.

David Harding, Dame Zaha Hadid, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Ian Blatchford and Claudia Harding (L-R) announcing the new Maths Gallery.

Ian Blatchford, the Science Museum’s Director, explained his ambition was ‘to deliver the world’s foremost gallery of mathematics both in its collection and its design.’ Dame Hadid described how mathematics, in particular the modelling of turbulence around an aircraft, had inspired the design of the new gallery and she recalled her first visit to the Science Museum, aged 10, describing it as ‘extremely fascinating’.

Maths is too often perceived as a dry and complex, but the new gallery will tell stories that place mathematics at the heart of our lives, exploring how mathematicians, their tools and ideas, have helped to shape the modern world.

The stories told in the gallery will span 400 years of science and mathematics, from the Renaissance to the present day, with objects ranging from intriguing hand-held mathematical instruments to a 1929 experimental aircraft.

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery featuring the Handley Page aircraft. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery featuring the Handley Page aircraft. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

The Handley Page aircraft is one of the star objects – a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12m wingspan, which will be suspended from the gallery ceiling. With civilian air travel expanding rapidly in the 1920s, aircraft manufacturers around the world needed a better understanding of the mathematics of aerodynamics and material stress.

This experimental aircraft, made in Britain by Handley Page and building on aerodynamic work carried out during WWI, was designed to take off and land slowly and steeply without stalling, vital at a time when urban airfields were often shrouded in fog.

A plan diagram of the Mathematics Gallery. The gallery layout follows the Handley Page aeroplane's turbulence field. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects.

A plan diagram of the Mathematics Gallery. The gallery layout follows the Handley Page aeroplane’s turbulence field. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects.

Welcoming the £5 million donation, our Director Ian Blatchford described it as a “game-changing gift to the museum”. David Harding has a long-standing relationship with the Science Museum, most recently supporting the museum’s Collider exhibition and tour, the new Information Age gallery and our educational work.

The David and Claudia Harding Mathematics Gallery will open in 2016, and will be curated by David Rooney, who also curated our award-winning Codebreaker exhibition about the life of Alan Turing. The gallery is part of the Science Museum’s Masterplan, which will transform around a third of the museum over the next five years.

V2 rocket on launch pad in Germany, 1945.

V-2: The Rocket that Launched the Space Age

This week (8 September 2014) marks 70 years since the first V-2 rocket attack on London. Curator Doug Millard reflects on the rocket that helped start the space age.  

On 8th September 1944 Professor Jones and his colleague turned suddenly to each other in their Whitehall office and in unison said, ‘That’s the first one’. London had experienced four years of explosions from Luftwaffe bombs so this latest blast was hardly remarkable. But what they had noticed was the second bang following immediately after the first: a double detonation.

For over a year Jones, as Assistant Director of Intelligence (Science) at the Air Ministry, and his team had been assembling evidence for the existence of a new type of German weapon – one quite unlike anything developed before.

The bombs dropped during the blitz had been carried by manned aircraft; more recent attacks came from pilotless planes nicknamed doodlebugs or buzz bombs (on account of their leisurely flight across the sky and the staccato drone they made). Both could be detected on the way to their targets and warnings issued for the populace to seek shelter.

The new weapon gave no such warning: its exploding signalled that it had already arrived. It was a rocket that dropped from the sky at twice the speed of sound: one explosion was the warhead detonating; the other the sonic boom of the rocket’s arrival.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum's Making the Modern World gallery.

A V-2 rocket on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery. Credit: Science Museum

It had been developed at the Peenemunde research establishment on the Baltic coast line of Germany. Designated the Aggregat 4 or A4, it was the latest in a series of new rockets designed by the German Army. It stood 14 metres high and weighed twelve and a half tonnes. It had a range of over 300 kilometres and touched space as it climbed to a height of 88 kilometres before dropping in a ballistic path on to its target. Joseph Goebbels renamed it Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), which was later abbreviated to V-2.

Thousands of V-2s were launched during the war, most aimed at central London. They steered themselves and could not be jammed with radio signals. So even when a rocket’s launch was spotted by allied forces there was nothing that could be done to counter its flight. The V-2 was the harbinger of the Cold War’s missile age and the four minute warning.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets.

A gyrocompass used to guide the flight path of V-2 rockets. Credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The V-2’s guidance was innovatory – it employed a system of gyroscopes that registered any deviation in flight – but by today’s standards the missile’s accuracy was very poor. Most landed kilometres off target. Nevertheless, it was clear to many that this new weapon represented a future of strategic warfare; one in which far more powerful missiles mated to nuclear warheads would cover intercontinental distances on the way to their targets. To others it signalled the dawning of a space age when still bigger rockets would counter the pull of gravity and place satellites in orbits around the Earth.

After the war the Allies acquired the V2 technology and many of the rocket programme’s leading scientists and engineers. The Soviets constructed their own version at the start of a research programme that led eventually their own R-7 rocket which put Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – into orbit.

The Americans took many surplus V-2s along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. The Redstone rocket that launched the first American into space was von Braun’s derivative of his V-2. Eight years later his massive Saturn V rocket launched astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the Moon.

The missile Jones heard had come down in Chiswick, west London. It killed three people and destroyed a row of houses. Over the next months many more were launched with most falling in south-eastern England and killing thousands of people (a map of V-2 rocket strikes across London and surrounding counties can be seen here). In a grotesque irony the V-2 killed many more in the course of its manufacture by slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in central Germany.

The final V-2 landed south of London in Orpington on March 27, 1945 killing one person – the last civilian fatality of the war in mainland Britain.

For more information, visit the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery, where a full size V-2 rocket can be seen on display.

Living in a materials world – the human story of rubbish

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey follows some of the unexpected stories and personal objects that were found in the Museum’s bins. As the exhibition nears its end, what will happen to all this ‘rubbish’ afterwards?

Much of the feedback I have received about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection, from both visitors and staff, has been about the surprising personal items and stories that have come out of the bins. When we were first carrying out trials for the project it was one of the unexpected outcomes of the documentation process. This revelation, that sorting through waste was like a form of contemporary archaeology, inspired Joshua to invite the public to take part in the documentation process so that visitors also had the chance to experience the wonder of piecing together those narratives.

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

The stories we found in the bins ranged from the very general (like what the favourite crisp brand amongst visiting schoolchildren was) to more Museum-specific (like which new galleries were under development and which events had taken place). Even the volume told us how busy the Museum had been on a given day. There were also very personal stories such as notes put into someone’s lunchbox by their partner, a surprising number of medicines, and children’s drawings of their day out. In a painfully frank teenage love note, the author proclaims that they are not worth the attention of their crush and recommends they should go out with someone else. We even found a pregnancy test (negative; was its user disappointed, happy or relieved by that result? We’ll never know).

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

We don’t often think about our rubbish, full stop, let alone consider it as a personal document of our lives. Archaeologists have long been aware of this when piecing together a picture of the lifestyles and living conditions of people’s past, as have the paparazzi in finding out private information about celebrities and public figures. Looking at the landfill of the last few decades, I imagine, will tell a story of the rise of plastics and packaging, the dominance of certain supermarkets and brands, the affordability of electrical goods, our increasingly global markets and the enormous growth in waste generally. Hopefully, as with the Science Museum’s bins, an examination of more recent landfill should document a more positive change, that of recycling and our increased awareness of the value that materials still hold. The next step may be mining our municipal dumps to try to recover some of those precious materials that are now scarce in the natural world, such as the rare earth metals that are so important in the manufacture of electronic goods.

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

And what will become of all the rubbish and materials on display in The Rubbish Collection? Well, the materials, like the paper reels, plastic pellets, metals and fertilizer, will be returned to the companies that lent them to us, to continue on their recycling journey to become new products.  Electrical goods will be sent to specialist recycling companies to separate any reusable parts and recycle what cannot be salvaged. The items that we retained from the rubbish bags, though many would have originally gone to incineration if we had not intervened in their journey, will be recycled wherever possible. Medicines will be taken to a pharmacy for safe disposal, usable stationary will be returned to offices and the 16.5 pairs of shoes, 2 suits and other items of clothing will be taken to charity shops.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Going down the drain

In the latest of our blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey talks to Nick Mills, Waste Innovation Manager at Thames Water about what happens to our sewage and what the future holds for wastewater.

Sarah: What do Thames Water do with our sewage?

Nick: We have 350 sewage works and 68,000 miles of sewers across our region, which stretches from East London to the Cotswolds in the west. Last year, we removed and treated 4,369 million litres of sewage from 15 million customers. At our 350 sewage works we treat the sewage to remove contaminants and return it safely to the environment, it is often cleaner than the water in the river.

Sarah: What happens to the end products of the processing?

Nick: The main end-product of the sewage treatment process is something called sludge. This energy rich by-product is put to good use in anaerobic digestion, producing renewable energy that helps power our treatment sites. The digested sludge is then recycled to agricultural land.

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you face in dealing with our sewage/ waste water?

Nick: London has outgrown its sewer system. The Victorian sewers are in great condition, but simply not designed for today’s population. They were designed for just over two million but are used today by just over six million. The proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel will stop tens of millions of tonnes of raw sewage flowing into the Thames every year via the outfall system. It is a must-do job. We can’t keep treating the Thames as a sewer.

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw down the drains?

Nick: ‘Bin it – don’t block it’ is our campaign to end the misery caused by fatbergs. Leftover cooking fat and oil poured down the sink will set hard. This creates stinking, pipe-blocking fatbergs beneath your house or in your street.

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

Wet wipes are another big no-no because they are made of plastic. They don’t break down like toilet tissue, clinging to fat and clogging up the system. If drains get blocked, what you flush can come back up through your toilet or even your sink.

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?  Is there a top 3 list of things people could do differently to help?

Nick: Our message is simple, if it’s not water, toilet tissue or poo, please… ‘Bin it – don’t block it’.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 20 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Nick: In 20 years’ time I can see the wastewater industry becoming a net energy producer, by employing more efficient processes and increasing energy recovery. Combining advanced anaerobic digestion and technologies like pyrolysis, large increases can be made. Our Innovation team are busy demonstrating this at the moment. Phosphorus, a finite resource essential to life as we know it, will be recovered at every major sewage works and sold competitively as a fertiliser to farmers, this has also been demonstrated recently at our Slough sewage works by the Innovation team.

Innovation works at Slough © Thames Water

Slough sewage works © Thames Water

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection project?

Nick: I think it is great. It shows the harsh reality of waste, but at the same time reveals the great work that people do behind the scenes to keep society moving. I hope it will encourage a new generation to start what is a very interesting and rewarding career as there are huge challenges yet to be solved.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Roaming Far and Wide – the Science Museum in China

Outreach Officers Ronan Bullock, Aasiya Hassan and Susie Glover report back after their outreach trip to Hong Kong and China.

In March 2014, the Science Museum’s Outreach team was invited for the second time by The British Council in Hong Kong to deliver a series of shows and workshops as part of their Science Alive Festival. The theme of this year’s festival was ‘The Code of Life’ and we disgusted audiences with blood, guts and snot, exploring the science behind the human digestive system, blood and materials. We spent three days with our hosts at the Hong Kong Science Museum and a further nine days visiting twenty two schools across Hong Kong and New Territories. We experienced many different educational settings from government funded local schools to private international schools reached a combined audience of over 7,000!

Proving that no distance is too great for the Outreach team, we then caught a train to Dongguan City in mainland China to deliver events hosted by The Dongguan Science & Technology Museum. Over the course of four days we engaged with audiences at the museum and two local schools, reaching over 3,000 people. This visit continued our relationship with the museum, having hosted a number of free science shows performed by their staff right here in London, in the Science Museum, back in September 2013.

During our busy schedule we found time to sample some of the interesting local cuisines, tour both museums and see some local sites, the highlight of which was taking a cable car to see Hong Kong’s famous giant Tian Tian Buddha.

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

How to land on Venus

On the anniversary of Venera 7’s launch – the first spacecraft to successfully land on Venus – curator Doug Millard reflects on the challenge of exploring other worlds.

Over a 20-year period from the mid-1960s, Soviet scientists and engineers conducted one of the most successful interplanetary exploration programmes ever.

They launched a flotilla of spacecraft far beyond Earth and its Moon. Some failed, but others set a remarkable record of space firsts: first spacecraft to impact another planet, first controlled landing on another planet and the first photographs from its surface. The planet in question was not Mars – it was Venus.

Our knowledge of Venus at the time had been patchy. But as the Soviet probes journeyed down through the Venusian atmosphere it became clear that this planet – named after the Roman goddess of love – was a supremely hostile world. The spacecraft were named Venera (Russian for Venus) and the early probes succumbed to the planet’s immense atmospheric pressure, crushed and distorted as if made of paper.

Venera 3 did make it to the surface – the first craft ever to do so – but was dead by the time it impacted, destroyed by the weight of the air. Venera 4 was also shattered on the way down, but it survived long enough to return the first data from within another planet’s atmosphere. The engineers realised, though, they would have to reinforce still further the spacecraft’s titanium structures and silica-based heat shield.

The information coming in from the Venera probes was supplemented with readings from American spacecraft and ground-based observatories on Earth. Each added to an emerging picture of a hellish planet with temperatures of over 400 °C on the surface and an atmospheric pressure at ground level 90 times greater than Earth’s.

Spacecraft can only be launched towards Venus during a ‘window of opportunity’ that lasts a few days every 19 months. Only then do Earth and Venus’ relative positions in the Solar System allow for a viable mission. The Soviets therefore usually launched a pair of spacecraft at each opportunity. Venera 5 and 6 were launched on 5 and 19 January 1969, both arriving at Venus four months later.

There had not been time to strengthen these spacecraft against the unforgiving atmosphere, so instead the mission designers modified their parachutes so that they would descend faster and reach lower altitudes, sending back new data before their inevitable destruction.

Venera 7 descent module, (engineering model, scale 1;1), 1970  This descent module with parachute lanyards clearly visible was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970

This Venera 7 descent module (engineering model) with parachute lanyards clearly visible, was used for drop tests on Earth in 1970. Credit: Lavochkin Association/Photo: State Museum and Exhibition center, ROSIZO

Launched on 17 August 1970, Venera 7 made it intact to the surface of Venus on 15 December 1970 – the first probe ever to soft land on another planet. Its instruments measured a temperature of 465 °C on the ground. It continued to transmit for 23 minutes before its batteries were exhausted.

Venera 8 carried more scientific instruments which revealed that it had landed in sunlight. It survived for another 50 minutes. Venera 9, the first of a far stronger spacecraft design, touched down on 22 October 1975 and returned the first pictures from the surface of another planet. It too showed sunny conditions – comparable, the scientists reckoned, to a Moscow day in June.

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. The foreground is littered with flattened rocks and the horizon is just visible at the tops of the top corners. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

This photograph, the first taken from the surface of another planet, was taken by the camera on board the Venera 9 descent module shortly after it landed on Venus on 25th October, 1975. Credit: NSSDC Photo Library

The surface was shown to be mostly level and made up of flat, irregularly shaped rocks. The camera could see clearly to the horizon – there was no dust in the atmosphere, but its thickness refracted the light, playing tricks and making the horizon appear nearer than it actually was. The clouds were high – about 50 km overhead.

The Soviet Union now had a winning spacecraft design that could withstand the worst that Venus could do. More missions followed, but then in the early 1980s the designers started making plans for the most challenging interplanetary mission ever attempted.

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.  Credit: NASA History Office

This photograph was taken by the Venera 13 camera using colour filters. It shows the serrated edge of the Venera 13 decent module gripping the soil on the rocky surface of Venus.
Credit: NASA History Office

Scientists around the world were keen to send spacecraft to Halley’s Comet, which was returning to ‘our’ part of the Solar System on its 75-year orbit of the Sun. America, Europe and Japan all launched missions, but the Soviets’ pair of Vega spacecraft were the most ambitious, combining as they did a sequence of astonishing manoeuvres, first at Venus and then at Halley’s Comet.

Both craft were international in their own right, with many nations contributing to their array of scientific instruments. They arrived at Venus in June 1985.

Each released a descent probe into the Venusian atmosphere. Part of it released a lander that parachuted down to the surface while the other part deployed a balloon, with a package of scientific instruments suspended underneath that first dropped and then rose through the atmosphere to be carried around the planet by winds blowing at well over 200 miles per hour.

Meanwhile, the main part of each Vega spacecraft continued on past Venus, using the planet’s gravity to slingshot itself towards an encounter with Halley.

A little under a year later both arrived a few million kilometres distant from the comet. Both were battered and damaged by its dust, but their instruments and cameras returned plenty of information on the ancient, icy and primordial heavenly body.

A golden age of Russian planetary exploration had come to an end.

Russia plans to return to Venus, but meanwhile its Vega spacecraft, their instruments long dead, continue to patrol the outer reaches of the Solar System, relics of the nation’s pioneering days of space exploration.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening 18 September 2015.

Shedding light on the matter of rubbish

In the latest of our blog series linked to The Rubbish Collection, the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins finds an ingenious use for our discarded materials.

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection exhibition is open at the Museum until 14 September. Having documented every piece of waste that passed through the Museum for a month, this second phase is a chance to see what would have been thrown away.

Of the material that hasn’t been selected for display, I collected a small box of bits that I hoped to turn into a product that we might sell in the shop. I like the idea that with a little bit of effort and imagination, items that would otherwise be chucked, can be turned into something desirable. Unfortunately the collection of items in the box that I had gathered didn’t look at all desirable. A couple of umbrellas, some bits from a light fitting, an old copper funnel, an ash tray, some plastic cutlery, some glass cups and a selection of ball bearings didn’t look very promising.

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

The germ of my idea came from digging out the copper funnel and investigating it further. It was heavily corroded and covered in green verdigris, but underneath was structurally solid, and a beautiful shape.

I read somewhere that vinegar could be used to clean copper, so I popped down to the café, to get a couple of sachets to try out. It turns out it does a reasonable job on lightly tarnished areas, but can’t handle the extent of corrosion on the funnel. However, it did encourage me that the funnel could be saved.

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Next I pulled apart the umbrellas, lined up everything from the box and had a think what I might make. A happy coincidence was that the handle from the umbrella fitted exactly into the top of the funnel.


An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

My first thought was to make some sort of loudspeaker people could shout through. Next, I thought the umbrella handle might plug the funnel to make a water-tight vase or container of some sort. Finally, looking at the shining clean patch of copper I thought, coupled with a 1950s-style squirrel cage bulb, it might make a really nice light fitting.

The next step was to recondition the copper funnel. In the basement, the Museum has metal and wood workshops responsible for building, installing and maintaining the structures for new exhibitions. Amongst their equipment is a sandblasting machine, which I used to blast the corrosion from the funnel.

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

I decided to leave the matt finish left from the sand blasting on the inside surface, and polish up the outside. Using Brasso and eventually a buffing wheel I polished up the outer surface.

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

To ensure the lamp remains pristine, I decided to use a polymer based lacquer, applied in the workshop’s spray booth.

In the spray booth © Mark Champkins

Finally I added the umbrella handle, and a lighting flex and fitting. I think the finished light looks rather good. It’ll be available for purchase in the Museum shop from mid August.

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.