Tag Archives: Space

Wonderful Things: Chimpanzee brain

Meet the brain of your closest living relative in the Animal Kingdom…

Look human?

Look human? This brain belonged to a close relative…

It is easy to make the assumption that this is a human brain… the visual similarities are plain to see! But this is in fact the brain of a pan troglodytes, or as we know them, the chimpanzee.

We share a stunning 94% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and we can see the incredible closeness we have with them by looking at this brain. To the untrained eye the only difference we can see is in size – the human brain is a whopping three times larger than that of our hairy little cousin!

The similarities are not just on the surface but in the development of the brain itself. Humans and chimpanzees are perhaps the only species in which the brain continues developing after birth. When we are born, the part of our brain that controls our most complex cognitive functions, such as self-awareness and creativity, is not fully formed yet. It then starts developing very quickly…and much the same happens with chimpanzees.

So why do both humans and chimps share this commonality? The answer, it seems, is that this delay allows human and chimp brains to learn things they otherwise would not be able to. The delay gives their brains far greater plasticity, which, as Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University explains, leaves “their neural network and brain function more susceptible to the influence of postnatal experience.” Basically, the time spent waiting for the forebrain to grow is spent learning complex social interactions and establishing basic skills that will serve humans and chimpanzees well over the course of their lives.

 Of course, there comes a point where the human brain develops and moves far beyond that of the chimpanzee, but by that stage the chimp has gained the ability to do many things that continue to astound scientists. They have their own complex method of communication, but research has shown they can also understand basic human language and comprehend numbers and counting. They also use tools to help themselves on a day-to-day basis and have good memory skills. Incredible!

Chimpanzees are so smart that in 1961 the American Space Program sent a young chimp called Ham into space! He operated levers in a basic space capsule which paved the way for a human manned capsule several months later. Ham returned safely to Earth and lived the rest of his life as a national hero.

Brainy chimp Ham made it into space and back in 1961

Brainy chimp Ham made it into space and back in 1961

  • What does it take to man a solo mission into space like Ham? Do you think you could do it?
  • After seeing how similar our brains are, do you think Chimpanzees can ‘think’ like humans?
  • How would you feel about donating your brain to science?

For more about animals in space, check out the Laika the Spacedog Opera for KS2…

The Chimpanzee brain can be found in Who Am I?, on the first floor of the Wellcome Wing

-Shaun Aitcheson


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

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 FoxNews.com. “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?

Anyone for Mars?

The planet Mars is the closest we have in our solar system to being called hospitable (well, after our own beloved Earth)- it has surface gravity, an atmosphere, carbon dioxide, minerals and most importantly, water. But would you want to take a one-way trip over there?

The desert-like landscape of Mars


Some scientists, like Dirk Schulze-Makuch, speculate that to safeguard the human species against catastrophe on Earth, within 2 decades we could start sending over small groups of colonists to start living on Mars. Others, like Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell, say we are not ready to be discussing living on the red planet. NASA is not going anywhere near the idea, but Schulze-Makuch claims that the private sector may be more interested in investing in the missions.

After all, humans are dreamers-of-what-could-be, and pushing the boundaries is what drives scientific exploration. After exploring the surface of planets, the next step would be visiting in person- think of the incredible technology we would develop to deal with travel to and life in such a harsh environment.

But we haven’t even sent a human to Mars to walk on the surface, let alone try to make a life there. Which of us will be ready to literally leave their world behind and survive on an alien planet? And why should we colonize other planets anyway? If it won’t benefit the individual -and most of us remain on Earth to perish when an asteroid hits us- why should we care if the species propagates itself through the universe?

If you do decide to hold a classroom discussion around this topic, look into our Mars Mission Box as an extension activity for your students to practically explore some of the challenges to life on Mars, for example protecting ourselves against radiation. 

Good luck!

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.