Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Visions of the Universe

Verdict: Go see it
Where: National Maritime Museum
When: Until 15 September

When you watched the informative BBC series 'Wonders of the Universe' the overwhelming theme was our insignificance in the grand scheme of things and how we're all made up of the remnants of a long ago supernova. Visions of the Universe at the National Maritime Museum has taken a completely different, and more positive, tack and focusses on how we've captured the universe around us and our achievements as a spacefaring species.

The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Sir Patrick Moore, and like him this show is about educating us and letting us marvel at the secrets held within the night sky.

The Andormeda Galaxy. Copyright Aggelos Kachagias

The opening exhibits do a great job of teeing up a catalogue of our achievements. An 1835 sketch of the distant Orion nebula contrasts with the close-up that the Hubble telescope has given us - bursting with the colours of star formation and intergalactic particles.

The moon receives the same treatment and it's astounding to see images of the far side of the moon taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter - a view that only a few sets of human eyes have ever observed directly. A speeded up video of a Lunar month then hypnotised me with its constant change in size as the moon encircles the Earth on its elliptical orbit.

Next comes the fiery heart of our solar system the sun. Close-up images of it in UV light and of a sunspot make it seem like it could explode at any moment. Which it is constantly doing, as it's essentially a giant nuclear fusion reactor.

It's worth noting that many facts in the exhibition won't be new to astronomy fans but there's a few special ones that are worth re-iterating. For example, one of nature's most majestic sites, the solar eclipse, only occurs because due to a massive cosmic coincidence the sun happens to be 400 times further away from us than the moon, and also 400 times smaller in the sky.

Another view of the sun is in the blue-green of extreme UV light, it seems almost magical like a whirling ball of alien energy.

Next we have the planets of our solar system and the big screen is saved for a panorama of Mars taken by the rover Spirit. When sat encapsulated by this gargantuan curved screen, it's as if you've been transported to the desolate surface of the red planet.

The images of Saturn from the Cassini probe are also magnificent but let's not forget our humble planet in all of this. A night time view of earth shows the various cities 'lighting up' and it's impressive how certain cities and continental boundaries clearly stand out even in the darkness.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 11 makes you wonder how deeply spiritual an experience it must have been - to lose sight of your home and then see it rise once more.

Earthrise. Copyright NASA Johnson Space Centre

It's when we get to the deep space section that the images become even more awe-inspiring. Sure, many are recycled from previous Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibitions but they're worth another viewing.

A Ralph Waldo Emerson quote on the wall states that 'the sky is the ultimate art gallery just above us' and how right he is. The famous 'pillars of creation' photograph taken by Hubble shows the birth of stars within a gaseous nebula - is this the universe's equivalent to Botticelli's Birth of Venus? It's also a glimpse at the past as it's 9.5 light years away- just this fact alone is difficult to comprehend, that we have advanced so much that we can see stars being born ... in the past!

The explosion of colour in the photograph of the Butterfly Nebula is so spectacular it puts Renoir in the shade. It's an image so beautiful, it can make you weep.

And I could go on. Four galaxies on a collision path, astronauts floating in space and the aurora borealis seen from the International Space station are among many more spectacular photographs on show.

The Crab Nebula (M1). Copyright NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

The only image missing is the famous pale blue dot photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager probe as it left our solar system. It's one of my most inspiring shots so a shame it wasn't included.

This minor quibble aside, this is a well curated exhibition that, if it doesn't blow your mind with its information, definitely will with its superb images. Go see it.

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