Category Archives: Space

The Felix Effect

We all watched it, didn’t we, Fearless Felix Baumgartner’s amazing drop from space.

Felix takes the plunge

Felix takes the plunge. Hello gravity!

We all felt his nervousness and excitement as he prepared to throw himself out of the capsule, the astonishment as he fell at breakneck speed, flipping over and over wildly, and the exhuberance as he regained control and neatly broke the sound barrier as he fell at 1,342km/h.

What an amazing feat- more so because it plays to our imaginations and pushes the boundaries of what  we know is humanly possible… and anything like that  actually makes a great in-road for getting your students talking about science.

The Guardian has a lovely article about how you can use Fearless Felix’s feat as a hook to studying gravity, and plenty of resources and experiments your students can try in the classroom (including some of ours!)

Call it the Felix Effect… or just a great hook- either way, using a relevant, current or provocative event to link into science topics is a brilliant way to show your students that science does genuinely mean something to them.

See you back on solid ground!



Clean orbit

We’ve come a long way since Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite, was launched by the Soviets in 1957. There are now hundreds of satellites orbiting above our heads, making our mobile phones, traffic signals, TVs, internet and loads of other communications, actually work.

Along with the working satellites, there are the dead ones, the fragments of broken ones, the rocket parts from past missions, and myriad other chunks of junk orbiting at breakneck speeds, looking for something to collide with. And when they do, working satellites are destroyed, the Space Station could be damaged , the astronauts’ lives put at risk, and a whole new cascade of junk fragments  go careening off in all directions. Sound serious? Quite!

 BUT! The Swiss with their great efficiency and tidy ways, have been pondering this massive problem. They are developing CleanSpace One, a little ‘janitor’ satellite to deal with space junk by capturing it and dragging it back into the atmosphere to burn up.

A Swiss janitor satellite to tackle space junk

A Swiss janitor satellite to tackle space junk

This comes not a moment too soon, as space agencies now really have to consider how to de-orbit the satellites they launch, if they don’t want to make the junk problem worse and end up being cut off from space.

So who is responsible for the junk up in space? Is it you and me, as users of the services they provide, or the companies that launch them? Would you pay extra on your mobile phone bill to help clean up space?

Explore space junk and other big issues in Futurecade, our brand new digital game… If you’re a teacher, try it as a starter for a classroom discussion, and use the in-game questions to get your students talking about how science impacts on their lives.

Good luck :)

Wonderful Things: Apollo 10 command module

If you find a bottleneck in Making the Modern World there is one likely culprit: the Apollo 10 capsule. It is impossible, even for staff, to walk by without taking a sly glance at this magnificent object. Whilst unassuming – with its battered, singed red exterior – it tells us so much about the potential for human endeavour and scientific exploration.

Apollo 10 Command Module- what space dreams are made of

Piloted by a three man team – Commander Thomas P Stafford, Command Module Pilot, John W. Young and Lunar Module Pilot, Eugene Cernan – Apollo 10 took to the skies on May 18. 1969, their mission: to test all the components and procedures of a Moon landing, without actually landing on the moon (known as an F type mission – a ‘dry run’ for the later Apollo 11 mission).

Upon reaching lunar orbit – carrying the first colour television camera inside the spacecraft to beam live broadcasts back to earth – Young remained in the command module, Charlie Brown, while Stafford and Cernan flew separately in the lunar module.

Interesting fact: throughout the mission the astronauts used call-signs from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (the command module, Charlie Brown, and the Landing Module Snoopy) Schulz had created some special mission-related artwork for NASA.

Whilst orbiting, the crew monitored the craft’s radar and ascent engine, momentarily rode out a gyration in the Lunar Lander’s motion and surveyed the landing site in the Sea of Tranquillitywhich would be used by Apollo 11.

The crew returned safely, splashing into the Pacific Ocean on May 26, 1969.

All crew members went on to fly in subsequent missions: Staffordon the Apollo Soyuz test project, Young on Apollo 16 and Cernan as commander of Apollo 17 which made him, to this day, the last man on the moon. If you would like to hear more about Cernan and his mission, why not come visit our Gene Cernan drama character at the museum. And whilst you are here, visit the amazing Exploring Space gallery to see the other people and objects that have boldly explored the universe!

In 2011, the USA ended its space programme; the approximate cost of the programme being 7 billion a year – the equivalent of about 28 million Playstation 3 consoles.

  • Was it worth it? Should this money be spent on exploring the universe?
  • If you had this money for scientific investigation, what would you explore?

See Apollo 10 in Making the Modern World near the Wellcome Wing.

-Christopher Whitby

Wonderful Things: V2 engine

The V2 rocket engine was developed in Germany in the early 1940s. The engine was far bigger than any other rocket engine built before, making the V2 rocket the first long range missile used in World War 2.

The V2 engine- revolutionary and terrifying

The V2 engine- revolutionary and terrifying

Propelled by an alcohol and liquid oxygen fuel, V2 had a range of over 320km and travelled at about 1,341m/sec. Incredibly, that’s three times faster than the speed of sound! The V2 offensive on the British lasted from September 1944 to March 1945 and close to 2,500 rockets were launched during that period. London alone was hit by over 500. On one particular day in 1944, a V2 carrying a tonne of high explosives was launched from its site in the Netherlands, detonating just five minutes later on homes in Chiswick,West London. The explosion that day killed three people.

V2 rocket on launchpad

V2 rocket on launchpad. Image SSPL

The engine’s name alone (V2 standing for ‘vengeance weapon 2’) clearly indicates the idea of inflicting harm or injury through the power of this missile. After the war, work began in Russian larger missiles, based on extensions of V2 technology. However, although the V2 was used for military purposes first, it has also been a vital component in the evolution of space rocketry!

The V2 engine was in fact the forerunner of the booster rockets that launched space craft and astronauts, allowing humans to start exploring what lies beyond our planet. How so? After the war, the remaining V2 rockets were captured by Allied forces and taken to the US to be researched. The V2 rocket was the first vehicle in space! In fact, the first ever photo of the earth from space was taken in 1946 by a camera on a V2 rocket. This black & white image is on display with the V2 engine as part of our  ’10 Climate Stories’ exhibition.

As well as space travel, we can’t escape the V2 is also the precursor of all modern guided missiles… But many technologies initially developed for military use have become incredibly important to everyday life (the internet, for example).

Is the V2 rocket an engine of discovery, or an engine of war?

Do the advantages of space travel and exploration enabled by the V2 outweigh the devastating military use?

What other applications of military technology can your students find in their lives?

The V2 engine is on display in Exploring Space Gallery, ground floor.

The V2 rocket is found in Making the modern world, on the ground floor.

- Denise Cook

Coming LIVE! from Antenna

Have you ever visited the Antenna gallery at the Science Museum? It’s an ever-changing exhibition of science news and cutting edge research, where you can find out what’s bubbling and what’s buzzing, see some incredible objects (a dress made of thousands of paper cranes folded from the London Metro newspaper- how’s that for throwaway fashion?) and share your views on our interactive kiosks.

Antenna also has a website which is great for an instant peek into whats happening right NOW in the science and tech world- a lot of teachers even get their students to use it for info gathering before a discussion.

But anyway! The exciting news is that Antenna has 3 live events happening on gallery this month!

2-4 August: Space Robots

Time: 10.00–13.00 and 14.00–16.00

Come and see the robots that could be bound for the surface of distant planets. Are they the future of space exploration? Scientists from Rutherford Appleton Laboratory who developed the robots will be there to answer all your questions.

 16-18 August: Cockroach Robot

Time: 10.00–13.00 and 14.00–16.00

How do insects move so quickly? Come and check out a super-speedy six-legged robot from the Royal Veterinary College. Find out how its cockroach-inspired legs help it move from the engineers who designed it.

Cockroaches get fitted with tiny accelerometer 'backpacks' Cyber-roach – fitted with an accelerometer backpack

23-25 August: Demon unmanned aerial vehicle

Time: 10.00–13.00 and 14.00–16.00

It’s the world’s first flapless aircraft – the Demon UAV, which uses compressed air to manoeuvre. Could this be the stealth plane of the future? Join engineers from Cranfield University and BAE Systems to find out how the Demon works.

Demon unmanned aerial vehicle

Demon UAV - first flapless flight

 So come check out this month’s ‘bots, and chat with the scientists who devised them!

Goodbye Atlantis…

Ever come across something so cool that you think ‘I just have to share this’? Well, check out this Space Shuttle time-lapse, collated from a series of images taken from Space Shuttles Discovery and Atlantis whilst docked at the International Space Station (ISS) for the last time. Thanks to Flavio for sharing!

Sun rising on the final Shuttle mission

Sun rising on the final Shuttle mission

Atlantis’s landing today marks the end to NASA’s 30 year Shuttle programme. The iconic shuttle fleet were used to launch the Hubble space telescope, build the ISS, and ferry astronauts and supplies into orbit- they were the first spacecraft designed to be reusable. Atlantis’ final touchdown also leaves Russian Soyuz rockets as the sole taxi service between Earth and the ISS, until commercial ventures can fill that gap, though that looks to be a few years away.

What does that mean for US space exploration? Will the government savings made by concluding the Shuttle programme come back to haunt us, or will private missions drive faster progress, get astronauts to Mars sooner? And, (purely selfishly) are we any closer to affordable space tourism?

Can we all become astronauts?

Last month, the world celebrated 50 years since the first manned spaceflight, by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Yuri became the first man in space after completing a single orbit of Earth on the Soviet spacecraft Vostok, in April 1961 (at the Science Museum we actually have a fantastic drama event about Yuri’s incredible journey).

Last month, a lot of people also went on holiday for the Easter period. We traveled by plane, on trains and by water. Technology has developed by leaps and bounds since Yuri first saw the Earth from above, likewise, so has our desire to visit faraway destinations; people now take holidays abroad for granted.

Once upon a time those faraway destinations were mapped by explorers, before tourists followed in their footsteps… Deserts were crossed, mountains were conquered, lives were lost to chart the rainforests. But it wasn’t long ’til curious amateur adventurers also found their way to these once-unknown places.

Space appears to be no different. Virgin Galactic is currently taking bookings for their space flights, so any of us can be an astronaut! Well, any of us healthy and wealthy enough to afford that $200,000 ticket.

Holidays in space for everyone?

Seeing the Earth from above has changed people’s lives. Jim Lovell, who was on the Apollo 8 and 13 missions, has said “It gives you in an instant…(an idea of) how insignificant we are, how fragile we are, and how fortunate we are to have a body that will allow us to enjoy the sky and the trees and the water.” And Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist to visit the International Space Station in 2006, announced that “if people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth.”

Earth from space

Earth from space

Perhaps it is something we could all benefit from experiencing- in fact, could it one day be a right just like education? So how long will it be before holidays in space really become commonplace? And should there be a low-cost alternative for those of us who don’t mind a little less legroom?

Peer Pressure

Let’s talk about the importance of peer review.

Particularly in light of the recent announcement by NASA scientist Richard B. Hoover in the Journal of Cosmology, that fossil evidence of bacterial life has been found in meteorites.  That we are not alone out there, and that life on alien worlds may actually be more similar to life on our dear planet than we had expected.

A photograph taken through a scanning electron microscope of a CI1 meteorite (right) is similar in size and overall structure to the giant bacterium Titanospirillum velox (left), an organism found here on planet Earth, a NASA scientist said.

“I interpret it as indicating that life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet earth,” Hoover told “This field of study has just barely been touched — because quite frankly, a great many scientist would say that this is impossible.”

Before we get all excited about our extraterrestrial cousins making contact, it is important to realize claims of this type have been made before, and they have been discovered to be false. PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota has something to say about this…

However, given the controversial nature of this paper. Dr Rudy Schild, the editor-in-chief of the journal has invited 100 experts and issued a general invitation to over 5,000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. He says “No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough vetting, and never before in the history of science has the scientific community been given the opportunity to critically analyze an important research paper before it is published”.

So, peer pressure indeed. Are we to believe that if the paper gets through the nano-fine tooth comb of 5000 critical scientists, the research is reliable? Does that settle the question once and for all?

Happy Birthday Hubble

The Hubble telescope is celebrating 20 years of stargazing this year. Launched in 1990, Hubble orbits the Earth sending back images of the universe. Scientists have been able to use Hubble to help more accurately determine the age of the universe (somewhere between 13-14 billions years old, just in case you were wondering) and the telescope also played a key role in the discovery of dark matter. 

Any ground-based telescope has to contend with Earth’s atmosphere blocking and distorting the light that reaches our planet, but by placing Hubble in space we have been able to see the universe far more clearly than ever before. Some of the images that it has captured have been breathtaking.

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

Find out more about Hubble from it’s very own NASA website here, or why not follow it on twitter. Hubble is a great way to start a classroom discussion on a wide range of issues concerning the Universe, from the origins and ends of the universe to the question of whether there is life on other planets. 

Why not use the ever popular Marketplace technique to cover all the possible sides of the discussion. Also just launched around the UK is the brand new Hubble 3D IMAX film currently showing at the Science Museum, click here for more information.