Holiday: Day 1, Monday.
Last week we spent a few days in Hampshire. As is our usual practice we started the visiting on the day of travel before arriving at the place we stay (in this case a cheap family room in a Travel-lodge). This time it was the Intech Science Centre just outside Winchester. 
Lady Hussar had got money off vouchers from the ‘web, and I think it cost about £20 for a family ticket, plus another £2 per person ( four people) for the addition of the planetarium. (fold put in, as it is a long post- but my experience was amazing)

The main centre is various ‘hands on’ stuff to explain various scientific principles. I must admit I wasn’t completely blown away by it- it seemed a little haphazard in layout, though I will admit part of the problem is at my end, as I didn’t really feel the kids engaged, operating one machine then running off to the next without grasping the principles. It’s probably the sort of thing that they will flourish in the middle of a discussion, proving they were listening to the old man when he explained levers. (Incidentally did you know, average water use in Developed countries approx 139 litres per person per day, UK- 150ltr, USA a massive 630!)

When we entered and bought the planetarium tickets we were asked which show we would like- various themes: being an astronaut,  blackholes, being an astronomer (narrated by David Tennant), and ‘the enchanted reef'(!)  Upon seeing the list I had insisted on ‘A flight through the universe’.  I’m glad I did.

As we entered someone (who I suspect was ‘Jenny’- more of her in a minute) said the best place to sit was in the middle- half way back, as we were first in.  Being a couple of minutes early definately was the best move.

The seats are fixed in a ‘recline’ position, because you will be looking at the ceiling (obviously for a planetarium!).  Because we had got the ‘best seats, we were looking at a point just in front of the apex of the dome- definately the best place to sit.  After a few minutes when everyone was in the lights went down, and Jenny said ‘Hi’.  She explained that this was a ‘live show’, which meant rather than just watching a recording, she was able to control it.  Then she switched on the stars.  From her commentary I suspect that although she is described as “Our planetarium manager”, Jenny has a degree in astronomy or similar.

It was an amazing view- the view of the night sky that fewer and fewer of us can see due to the light pollution, as Jenny explained.  Imagine laying on top of a hill on a clear summer night when there isn’t a town to be seen- no glow on the horizon.  The sky was just full of stars.  She pointed out the stars that could be seen in cities, and a few other shapes we might be able to recognize, as she had a mouse pointer, and line drawing ability.  She said that these were ‘unofficial’ constellations- anyone can do it, it’s just a matter of ‘join the dots’.  She then went on to sketch out a couple of  the ‘official’ constellations, and how they are used to help map the stars- everything in ‘this area’ belongs to ‘that constellation’, whether they make up the constellation or not.

Jenny explained how there were 88 of these ‘official’ constellations (Pratchett fans can go ‘Oh, I get it’), and then projected some rather fine line art, showing what the Ancients were seeing.  The sky was full of heroes and monsters and animals, real and mythological, and angels.  Even though you knew it was ‘just’ pictures on the roof, it was an astounding sight.  The Greeks saw stories in every corner of the sky.

Then came the most awe-inspiring part of all.

Jenny said “That is the traditional show in a planetarium” and turned off all the ‘man-made’ stuff. “However as this is a digital show, we can further’.  With that we tilted and rushed up and left.  Obviously it was just the computer moving the projection, but if every you want to know what the view is like from the Starship Enterprise, this is pretty darn close to how you’d imagine it.  It was like we were actually in a glass dome, travelling in space. In fact she suggested that we may need to occasionally close our eyes if we started to get motion sickness- the inner ear insisting that you are stationary, while the brain knows damn well what the eyes are telling it!

We rolled around until we were hanging above the earth.  Jenny explained what we were seein, and pulled out, putting the tracks of all the satellites up, their orbits encasing the Earth is a wire ball.  Pulling further back we could see the high orbiting geostationaries, such as the sat-nav satellites hanging. 

Jenny explained how they could be knocked out by solar radiation, and that this radiation hits the planet all the time, and would kill all life if we were not protected.  She pulled up a representation of our magnetic field- and I will forever think of magnetism being a pale blue gauze from now on.  If you ever did magnetism at school science, the experiment where you put a bar magnet under a sheet of paper and sprinkle iron filing on top, you sort of expect it to look the same- a sort of figure ‘8’.  The Earth’s doesn’t.

It looks more like a pouch  or sack, as the magnetic field streams away to the nightward side, blown by the magnetic winds.  For the first time I really understood the cause of the Aurora Borealis, caused as solar radiation streams through the field as it emanates from the poles.  There was something magnificent about this seemingly fragile force protecting us from the might of the sun. 

We took the oppotunity to have a quick tour around the moon (as you do), and watch ‘us’ in our orbit about the Sun- which is rather like seeing that ‘Earthrise’ picture, you realise how fragile we are, there is nowhere else to go-  before we were invited to chose other planets to have a peek at.

Jenny gave choices, and the voting was done by trusty ‘who gets the most noise’.  1st choice, Venus beat Mercury.  A quick tilt, and some massive acceleration, and we were over Venus. Jenny explained how it used to be thought to be Earth’s “sister”, but we now know better.  The atmosphere is so corrosive, and the pressure so high, that the few probes we have sent are destroyed  fairly quickly.

Then it was on to Jupiter (instead of Mars), and how it is mostly gas, with the Red Spot a storm that has been going on at least ever since Jupiter was first observed 400 years ago.  There is also an anomaly that appeared a few ideas ago, and no knows what caused it- it may be an asteroid strike- Jupiter and Saturn providing important protection.

Next stop Saturn, and a flight though the rings!   No-one knows exactly why they stay so neat: hundreds of miles wide, but a few hundred meteres thick, before a quick look at Neptune.  All the time we are ‘flying’ in a manner man (and Lucasfilms) can only dream of.  I must admit a couple of times I found myself thinking “Don’t crash into the planet” as we hung above them.  A quick explanation of why Pluto is no longer called a planet, and we were at the edge of the solar system.

As I said, this was a digital system, and real time in every sense.  The operator can put in a date and time (we had that day’s), and the programme will match the universe- at one point we were informed she had ‘lost’ Jupiter, but the computer should know where it is (on the other side of the Sun at the moment!)

Jenny then went on to explain how far it was to the next star, and how long it would take to get there, so why we may well never meet an alien. She highlighted starts where we knew there were planets.  However, as we flew through the galaxy (backwards), star systems streaming past us, Jenny explained we may well have been detected.  In the ‘sky’ above us appeared a wire ball, with Earth at its core.  This was how far our radio/TV waves will have penetrated, and she highlighted the planets with in this range (you never know, 70 years from now we may get a message asking if that piece of paper Mr Hitler signed turned out all right, while those closer will want to know did the President ‘have sex with that woman’!).

Then we flew on, and you could see how small even that ball 140 light-years across is- it was soon lost among the star systems.

Then we were at the edge of the Milky Way- our galaxy, and looking at that spiral arm shape- thousand upon thousand of alien suns and worlds mankind will probably never know, and us, an insignificant dot, our sun not even visible. And then we turned around.

There, scattered among the blackness of space were more points of light. These were not stars. They were thousands of other galaxies- this distances  between them vast- far more than the stars in the galaxy.

Of course we know this, and see the odd picture in a book, but for it to be presented like this was mind-numbing.  We know only the minutest fraction of our own stellar neighbourhood, and out there is far more than we can imagine!

We flew on, through the vastness of intergalatic space, entire galaxies of millions of stars flying by, with explanations of various galaxies, and what the tell us about the universe, until we reached the edge of the known universe.

Remember my description of the night sky we started with. Imagine that – a dark starry night, but each of those points of light isn’y one star, it is an entire galaxy.  It is overwhelming. And we are this insignificant lump of rock orbiting an average sized star, which is itself part of an average galaxy, one amoung thousands. I’m getting a headache just trying to express the show!

Note that it was ‘the edge of the known universe’ not the ‘edge of the universe’. There may be more, but the light/radio waves/etc just haven’t had time in it’s 14 billion year history to reach us. Jenny said ‘It’s against the rules [of physics], but lets go outside the universe’. And there it was, a shimmering ball, containing everything there everwas, and where we were was Nothing. Not one particle of helium.  If there is anything out there- another universe, we will never know.

Then we flew back, 13.7 billion light year.  If you are having trouble with appreciating that then it is the distance light travels in a year x 13,700,000,000- 129,698,184,960,000,000,000,000km if you drove 100kph for your ENTIRE life you would need half a billion lifetimes. We did the journey in about 1 minute.  As we swept past the outer planets, round the moon, and gently back into Earth orbit we had a whole new perspective on what can feel like a huge planet!

The lights came up, and there was a Q&A session, before we staggered awestruck from the room.

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