Catherine de Lange for New Scientist
“What kind of holiday are you thinking of?” asked the lady behind the desk at the Intergalactic Travel Bureau. “I’d like to go somewhere a bit different,” I told her.
“Ah,” the travel agent smiled, “I think I have the perfect destination.” She shuffled through some papers before pushing one in front of me. “The moon. It’s not too far, so perfect for a long weekend.” That sounded nice, but I said I’d like somewhere a little more exotic - somewhere to brag about on my return. “Aha, I know just the place,” she said. “How about Mercury?” Now we’re talking.
“The days are 4000 hours long, and the flight takes two and half years, so you’ll have to take a bit of time off work,” she continued, “but the temperatures are lovely and warm.” I was sold. How much would the trip cost? After bashing on her calculator and apologizing for rising fuel prices, she tallied up the cost at £29 million. To book, I needed to leave a 10 per cent deposit. Credit cards weren’t accepted (though gold bullion would be fine). When I couldn’t afford to pay, she kindly suggested I take a postcard of Mercury and write a message to my friends. She said she would send it for me next time she’s there.
With this surreal exchange began an unusual Saturday night at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK. The home to the famous Meridian Line was opened up late for the Astronomer’s Ball, a one off event that is part of the London Science Festival.
Once I’d written my postcard from Mercury, I headed outside for a tour promising real recordings of sounds from space. First up, the sound of a meteorite, or more accurately radio waves bouncing off the meteorite’s ionizing trails (which sounded a bit like interference on a radio). Later, as we listened to the sounds of the Northern Lights, I got distracted by the sight of an astronaut ambling by and lost the rest of the tour group.
It turns out it wasn’t a real astronaut, but freelance astronomer Greg Smye-Rumsby, who presents planetarium shows at the observatory and is also a dab hand with a needle and thread: He created his space suit out of a couple of boiler suits and some strategically positioned zippers. Smye-Rymsby was busy setting up a small telescope and I asked him whether he was on the look out for the meteor shower rumoured to be happening that night. The rumours were true he said, but even if the sky hadn’t been so cloudy, he explained that it would be hard to spot the Orionid meteor shower because there would only be about two meteors an hour (compared to another shower earlier in the month with a spectacular 600 an hour). On the plus side, he said, if the clouds did part we should easily be able to spot Jupiter.
Thanks to the cloud cover Jupiter was in hiding at that point, but I still got to learn all about it in a brilliant talk inside the impressive planetarium. As we reclined in comfy chairs, the audience was given a guided tour around the night sky. The 360-degree video screens on the planetarium’s domed ceiling zoomed in and out of the solar system as seasoned comedian Robin Ince delivered a hilarious presentation with the observatory’s own comedienne in residence, Radmila Topalovic. The talk ended with an introduction to Jupiter and its four moons, including Io, which looks a bit like a pepperoni pizza thanks to its frequent volcanic eruptions, and Europa, which Topalovic said could be a good contender for alien life thanks to water and ice on its surface. She left us with a bold prediction that we will discover life in space in the next two years…
Carry on reading…