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Written in the stars: Astronomy’s Golden Age?

10 June 2013 Charlie Kenber

With the opening of a new exhibition exploring current understanding of our place in the cosmos, the time would seem to be ripe for Astronomy and space travel. Charlie Kenber talks to the exhibition’s curator and Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Marek Kukula…

In many ways it would seem to be the time for space. Not since the world gathered around their television sets in 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong utter those famous words has there been such a level of public interest in its exploration. Never before has it felt so close: if you’re reading this it seems inconceivable that you won’t have seen at least some of Chris Hadfield’s incredible photographs setting twitter alight or, like me, felt a certain something when watching his zero-gravity cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. The magic of seeing a record originally released to coincide with the moon landing performed from the ISS seemed to bring the final frontier closer than ever.

Astronomy and space travel then feel very current: perhaps because with economic crises the temptation, even need, to look up and to dream becomes even greater. It is with this impetus that a new exhibition has recently opened at the National Maritime Museum. Entitled Visions of the Universe the show charts the history of astronomy, with a collection of over one hundred spectacular images from the past century. Informed that the exhibition space was available, Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory and curator of the exhibition decided it could best be used to display these photographs. “I’ve always been struck by the beauty of astronomical images,” he tells us.

In choosing these pictures Marek and his team had several criteria. Not only could they simply be stunning in their own right, but they also needed to have a scientific or historic significance. Included, for instance, is the image used by the physicist Arthur Eddington in 1919 to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as well as the very first grainy pictures taken of the far side of the moon. Until the Russians sent a spaceship around the other side, no one had ever seen it.

So what does Marek think of astronomy’s new popularity? Although highly complimentary of Brian Cox’s significant efforts to popularise space, he feels that the seeds of the current public interest lie in the 1990s, when the Hubble Space Telescope started to produce truly beautiful photographs. “They were picked up in newspapers all over the world. Now hardly a day goes by without an astronomy image appearing in a newspaper somewhere.”

The use of new technology means that many of the images would normally be impossible for us to see. “There is more to the universe than meets our eyes. With special cameras we can detect light that is too faint to see, or is outside the visible spectrum. In a way technology is almost like a magic window on an otherwise invisible universe.”

As Public Astronomer of the Royal Observatory, a large part of Marek’s job is as what he terms a ‘science communicator’. With this exhibition specifically, he’ll be satisfied if the visitor leaves simply thinking ‘wow, the universe is really beautiful’. “If they think that and they also want to find out more about it then I’ll be even happier” he tells us.

Probably the most exciting aspect of this new exhibition however is its ‘Mars Window’. This is a thirteen by four metre curved wall, onto which recent images from NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover are projected, giving the impression of looking out onto the Martian landscape: the first time an exhibition has used the products of a current space mission in this way. “I just love going and standing in there,” Marek acknowledges. “It’s the closest I’ll ever get to standing on Mars.”

So if you feel the need to quench your thirst for astronomy and space, pop along to the National Maritime Museum, where you’re sure to find something to amaze and excite you. As Marek tells us, even in a big city like London, with its light pollution and the difficulty of seeing the stars, “it’s always worth looking up!”

Visions of the Universe runs until 15th September 2013. Further details available here.

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