A journey through space and time – Visiting the Royal Observatory

This is the oldest object you will ever touch… It is 4.5billion (that’s 4,500,000,000) years old. It is part of the Gibeon meteorite that is believed to have hit Earth during Prehistoric times.” – The Gibeon Meteorite, on display at the Royal Observatory Greenwich

Now, please read that again. The reason I ask? Bear with me… I grew up in South West London and went to primary school during the 1980s. No internet. Four television channels. No mobile phone. No Google. No YouTube. Every school report card that I can remember receiving at some point would state that I “…enjoy staring into space.” I wasn’t a daydreamer, far from it, my attendance was good, my homework was handed in on time and I’m told my grades were consistently above average in most, if not all of my subjects. I simply had itchy feet, a need for a break, I was looking for a complete change of scene.

An opportunity to escape the confines of the classroom and take learning on the road were few and far between, but when the time came, school trips were a break from the usual school day, offering the opportunity to see an exhibition or museum that offers unparalleled learning opportunities, and interact with classmates and teachers outside of the normal school environment. And eat the majority of your packed lunch on the coach before you’d even reached your destination.

Whether it happened on a school field trip or wandering by chance into a local museum, everyone with a passion for a subject has a story about their first memorable encounter. For me, the subject was space, and the museum was the Royal Observatory.

The Royal Observatory, is an observatory situated on a hill in Greenwich Park, overlooking the River Thames, in London. It played a major role in the history of astronomy and navigation, and is best known as the location of the prime meridian of the World, where East meets West, and thereby gave its name to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

The observatory was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II, with the foundation stone being laid on 10 August. The site was chosen by Sir Christopher Wren, known more famously for designing St Paul’s Cathedral. At that time the King also created the position of Astronomer Royal, to serve as the director of the observatory and to “apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.” He appointed John Flamsteed as the first Astronomer Royal after Flamsteed had come up with the formula for converting solar time to mean time, and published a set of conversion tables in the early 1670s. The building was completed in the summer of 1676. The building was often called “Flamsteed House”, in reference to its first occupant.

A century later, it was the 5th Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne who brought Greenwich Mean Time to a wider audience. As part of the great 18th century quest to determine longitude (east-west position), in 1767 Maskelyne introduced the Nautical Almanac. These were tables of ‘lunar distance’ data based on observations at Greenwich and using GMT as the time standard. This data enabled navigators to find their position at sea.

GMT was also crucial to the other great solution to the ‘longitude problem’, represented by John Harrison’s famous timekeepers. British mariners started keeping at least one chronometer set to GMT to calculate their longitude from the Greenwich meridian (longitude 0° by convention).

These two solutions would help pave the way for GMT to become the worldwide time standard a century later. In 1884 the Greenwich Meridian was recommended as the Prime Meridian of the World, at the International Meridian Conference. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that the USA had already chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national time zone system. The second was that in the late 19th century, 72% of the world’s commerce depended on sea-charts which used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian.

It’s June 2018, it’s early morning and the temperature is already well above freezing, in fact it’s the fourth-hottest day for Scotland and England based on 24-hour mean temperatures since records began. There is already a substantial throng of tourists and school children outside the entrance who are ready to greet the Observatory staff as they emerge to open the gates. With my ticket bought, I exit the ticket office and I’m met by the remaining section of a 40-foot (12m) reflecting telescope by astronomer William Herschel. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome.

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William Herschel became famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781. The telescope was the largest in the World and cost over £4000, paid for by King George III. Completed in 1789 and erected at Herschels home near Slough, about 30 miles west of Greenwich. The first observation with the telescope was on 19th February 1787, when Herschel pointed the then-incomplete telescope towards the Orion nebula, which he observed by crawling into the telescope and using a hand-held eyepiece. It soon became a tourist attraction. It was even marked on the Ordnance Survey map of the area.

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I turn to the right, walk around Flamsteed House and soon find myself standing within the Meridian Courtyard. Blinded by the sunlight reflected from the glass windows of Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs, on the opposite side of the River Thames some 2.5miles away, I turn my gaze to the right and see tourists and school children alike photographing themselves with the iconic selfie of standing on either side of the historic Prime Meridian Line of the World, and sharing them using the hashtag #PrimeMeridian on various social media platforms. I couldn’t help but do the same.

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Tickets to the Meridian Line and Royal Observatory also include admission to the Time Galleries and access to the Great Equatorial Telescope where you can also discover the remarkable story behind the reference line for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). The Time Gallery also possesses the housing and firing point for a green laser which marks the Meridian Line in the evening sky from the top of the hill in Greenwich Park towards the London skyline.

Since the late 19th century, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich has divided the Eastern and Western hemispheres of the Earth – just as the equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres. In 1884 the Prime Meridian was defined by the Transit Circle telescope at the Royal Observatory which was built by Sir George Biddell Airy, the 7th Astronomer Royal, at the age of 34, in 1850. Airy had risen from a poor farming family in Northumberland to this highest academic posts in Cambridge, and earned a reputation as a mathematical genius.

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This Transit Circle is the telescope that defined a new Greenwich Meridian from 1851. In 1884 it became the World’s Prime Meridian and it remains the basis of the World’s time-zone system. The cross-hairs in the eyepiece of the telescope precisely defined Longitude 0° for the world. The astronomers used Airy’s transit circle to measure the precise moment a star-crossed the Meridian (north-south) line that it defines. It remained in constant use until 1954, making over 600,000 observations, and it is still in full working order.

The adjacent room contains two further artifacts. First is Bradley’s 12.5ft zenith sector.

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A zenith sector is a telescope that points straight upwards. Observations made in this way suffer less error from atmospheric refraction. This instrument was designed for James Bradley, who discovered two major phenomena with it: the aberration of light and the nutation (wobbling) of Earth’s axis. It was used at Greenwich until 1837.

Second, is Halley’s 8ft iron mural quadrant.

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This instrument was built under the direction of George Graham for Edmond Halley, the second Astronomer Royal. It was widely praised for the accuracy of its scale, against which the telescope pivots. Its high price meant the Halley could not afford to install a second instrument facing South. In 1789 a new achromatic lens, which eliminated colour distortions, was added.

Upstairs, above the gift shop, is the spiral staircase leading to the Great Equatorial Telescope. And, ‘Great’ is an understatement.

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The Great Equatorial Telescope was used for research by many astronomers both in Greenwich and at Herstmonceux in West Sussex for over 60 years. Astronomers mainly used this telescope to observe double stars – two stars which orbit around each other over many years. Measuring the changing separation of these stars over time provided the data to calculate their combined mass (effectively ‘weighing’ the stars). Other instruments were added to the telescope to enable astronomers to analysis starlight and take photographs. The Royal Observatory often advertises the offer to join them for an evening with the stars. You too can view the Moon, stars and planets through this telescope by attending their Winter observing evenings (for more information, visit the Royal Observatory website)

I exit through the gift shop and immediately find myself heading towards a horizontal line of tourists, all being lead to the ticket office by an enthusiastic young woman carrying an umbrella in her hand, that’s pointed skyward. I attempt to surmise the language I can hear being spoken by the large group, even hazarding a guess at their Nationality (settling with Portuguese) and I rack my brain for the polite translation for “excuse me please” (I later discover it’s ‘com licenca, por favor’). I instead offer my apologies in English as I pass through a gap offered to me by a couple who had in fact read the situation having seen my approach, and had paused to let me through adding a smile to their offer, followed by a nod of their head by way of acknowledgement of my thanks. I make my way to the Astronomy Centre.

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The door is open, and the entrance hall is dark. Overly dark. I pause a moment allowing my eyes to adjust, and also to enjoy the welcome blast of cold, refreshing breeze from the air-conditioning, when I see a sentence on the wall to my right appear, painted in large white letters, lit by a solitary spotlight.

“Space is for everybody. It’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space…”

The words belong to Christa McAuliffe, the teacher/would-be astronaut on board the Space Shuttle Challenger. She had said them on the 6th December 1985, a little over a Month before she died on that fateful, unsuccessful launch when Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. I take a moment to appreciate their significance, they are a light in the dark in more ways than I can begin to list.

My eyes now fully adjusted, I see a staff member to my left sitting behind a leaflet strown reception counter and she offers me a smile having seen me stand and stare at those words a little longer than most, a smile which is reciprocated by me. She nods her head to the left, slowly, and rather suggestively as if giving me permission to enter, seemingly saying “Come on in, you’re one-of-us,” that I have passed the test, that I understand the significance of Christa’s words, that I am about to join an exclusive club and that the door to the VIP room has been opened to me.

At the entrance, right in front of me is the Gibeon Meteorite. It is the oldest object you will ever touch. It is 4.5billion years old.

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It is a large hunk of mostly iron with just under 10% of nickel. It was formed around the same time as our Sun and the Earth and after a leisurely tour of the Solar System as the centre of an asteroid, it came crashing down in Namibia, Africa in hundreds of fragments.

The Nama people used smaller bits of the meteorite for tools and countless chunks remained scattered over a large area. In 1836 Englishman J. E. Alexander collected samples and sent them to London. John Herschel confirmed they were indeed not of this planet.

The left edge of the meteorite has been sliced away so that you can see what it looks like inside and it has this beautiful pattern of metal crystals inside – those crystals only form if the metal has cooled over millions of years, just a few degrees every million years.

It is the oldest thing you will ever touch. I touch it. You can too. To put the age into perspective, what is the oldest thing you can touch, in its ‘original’ form, on Earth? Mountains? The oldest Mountains on Earth are the  Makhonjwa Mountains in Swaziland/South Africa are 3.5 billion years old. The bottom the Pacific Ocean? The Panthalassic Ocean first opened around 750 million years ago. The Grand Canyon? A mere 5/6 million years old. The Gibeon Meteorite is 4.5 billion years old.

If you have ever wondered how stars and planets are born, what astronomers do during the daytime or even about our place in the universe, you could not ascertain for a better exhibit to welcome you into the building where you can have those questions answered. You pass the Gibeon Meteorite and enter the interactive Weller Astronomy Galleries that aim to help you unravel the mysteries of the cosmos. You can watch how the universe was formed, from the Big Bang to now, get answers to the big questions from on-screen experts such as Professor Brian Cox, and see how the universe expanded from its smallest entity and how our solar system was formed. The Astronomy Inspires gallery showcases an orrery from the 19th century which demonstrates the motion of the planets. Alongside is a state-of-the-art projection wall showing the how the Universe formed: from the Big Bang to now, in four minutes.

In the adjacent Astronomy Explorers gallery you are able to engineer a space mission, finding out how to use different techniques to explore the Universe, making the decisions about what to take and how to get there (this is focused more at a school education level). Children can also try their hand at being an astronomer and use the interactive table-top to get answers to their astronomy questions.

I spend the majority of my time transfixed by the contents of a glass cabinet in the Astronomy Explorers Gallery. At the Astronomy Centre at the Royal Observatory, the meteorite samples do not stop solely with the Gibeon Meteorite. There’s also the Canyon Diablo Meteorite.

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The criss-cross lines on Canyon Diablo Meteorite can tell us how long it took to cool, giving us clues about the size of the asteroid it came from. There’s more.

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The white flecks visible on this, the Allende Meteorite, are called CAIs (calcium aluminium-rich inclusions). They also give us valuable clues about the formation of our Solar System.

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This Meteorite, the Esquel Pallasite, is thought to have been formed between the metal core and rocky mantle core of an asteroid. Meteorites like this help us learn about the interiors of planets, like Earth.

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This is the Nakhla Meteorite, and it is thought to have come from Mars as its chemical make-up matches data sent back by the Viking and Pathfinder missions to Mars.

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The black layer visible on the surface of this, the Barwell Meteorite, is the fusion crust formed as the meteorite heats up when entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

On the ground floor is the Planetarium and Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year gallery. The biggest International competition of its kind, it annually showcases spectacular images shot by astrophotographers worldwide. This year’s gallery is no exception.

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The annual Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition seeks to bring together the best astrophotography images from around the World. In 2017 the competition received over 3800 entries from a record 91 Countries, across all seven continents. These pictures reveal all manner of celestial spectacles that have been captured using a range of equipment, from sophisticated cameras and telescopes to mobile phones. The judges, who include; Chris Bramley, the Editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine, journalist and author Will Gater, and Oana Sandu, the Strategic Communication Coordinator for the European Southern Observatory, to name but three of the ten on the panel. These judges award prizes in eight different themed categories, as well as the Young Competition for entrants under the age of 16. There are two special prizes: One for photographs taken using remote robotic telescopes and one for newcomers to astrophotography – the Sir Patrick Moore prize. I am frankly astounded by the quality of the astrophotography on display.

Outside the Astronomy Centre is the newly refurbished 19th Century Altazimuth Pavilion where the first modern, research-grade telescopes have just been installed, making the institution a working observatory once again after 60 years. Over the past year, members of the astronomy team at the Royal Observatory have been busily preparing for the installation of a new suite of telescopes. In between the Peter Harrison Planetarium on one side and separated from the crowd-pulling Flamsteed House and Meridian Courtyard on the other, this small, unassuming building has just been restored and now houses a suite of four state-of-the-art telescopes (and one 1.6inch aperture guiding telescope), collectively called AMAT: the Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope. The building’s capacity for only 12 people means the opportunity to see these new instruments is somewhat limited. However, the vision for these telescopes lies online: captivating images of the Universe will be able to reach a global audience, bringing astronomy at Greenwich to the world.

It is at that point, after seeing evidence of what is the dawning of a new era for the Royal Observatory with the opening of the Altazimuth Pavilion, that my visit to the Royal Observatory comes to an end, rather aptly given my current location, time had run out. In its truest sense, the Royal Observatory is a museum, and as a museum, as it is with all historical important institutions, they collects objects and materials of cultural and historic importance, preserve them, research into them and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment. In our modern society it has become urgent for museums to redefine their missions, their goals, their functions and their strategies to reflect the expectations of an ever-changing World. The Royal Observatory has done exactly that.

In the years since my first visit, and this most recent visit, I had been apprehensive of what I might find when I had decided to return. Had the Royal Observatory adopted the necessary change and development over these past 30 years? How could a museum that exhibits time and astronomy adapt enough to keep up with society given that one of the fundamental objectives of a museum is to educate. Nobody could argue that it doesn’t possess the capacity and ability to cultural education effectively as it houses the tools and materials in its collection to do so. The Royal Observatory has a place in history, it doesn’t only exhibit history, the very ground you walk on IS history. So that’s exactly what the Royal Observatory offers you. History. History in its purest form and strongest sense of the word. It literally offers you the oldest thing you can ever touch, at 4.5 billion years old, and then offers you the means by which you can look into a telescope, turn your head skyward and look back even further. So, what does 30 years between each visit matter?

Royal Observatory: Adult £9.00 – Child £5.85

Astronomy Centre: Free

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