Things are looking up

The sky is the limit in the International Year of Astronomy - and it's about time, writes David Whitley.

It's heartening to know that even the great men of science can descend into petty bitch-fighting. Take Britain's first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, and Sir Isaac Newton, for example. It appears as though the two didn't get on and Newton indulged in what Flamsteed called "continued impudent tricks and pretences".

Sir Isaac got hold of the astronomer's star catalogue and had it published. Unfortunately, it wasn't finished and Flamsteed, being a perfectionist, was enraged. So enraged that he went out and bought all but 100 copies and had them burned.

It's gems of information like this that make the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London such an unexpected treasure. It's one of those places that makes incredibly geeky things absolutely fascinating.

Most people come for perhaps the geekiest reason of all. They want to stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere.

During opening hours, there will always be a scrum of people straddling the Prime Meridian, which runs through Greenwich. But the story of why it is there, of all places, makes it worth going inside.

The Royal Observatory was set up in 1675 and has been one of the world's key sites for astronomy ever since. Today it acts as a museum of time and space, although it keeps its symbolic significance as the place that time is measured from. Every day, year, century and millennium officially starts here and has done since 1884, when an international conference decreed it to be Longitude Zero.

Until that point, the world's timekeeping was, quite frankly, a mess.

It was only in the late 19th century that the whole of Britain - let alone the world - could agree on the same system. Until 1880, when Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was adopted throughout the country, every town kept its own time - often with comical results.

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The first part of the trail through the observatory is Flamsteed's House and much of it has been restored to how it was in his time - featuring old chairs, charts and telescopes.

From there, it moves on to the major problem of the era, at least if you were on a ship. Put simply, sailors didn't have an accurate means of working out where they were. The lines of latitude were fixed based on the equator but fixing longitude was a nightmare.

This led to the British Government creating the Longitude Prize in 1714 - a significant cash award to whoever could solve the riddle of ascertaining longitude at sea. Eventually two solutions were arrived at but it took the best part of 60 years.

The first method was the work of clockmaker John Harrison, who created a chronometer (essentially a clock) that could work at sea.

The second was the lunar distance approach that involved calculating the distance between a fixed point, the ship and the moon. That fixed point is Greenwich and much of the work on this approach was done under Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne.

Even for those of a mathematical bent, the calculations involved in this are tremendously difficult. They also require an ability to read the stars and their corresponding charts. In order to solve this problem, ships were sent across the world to make astronomical observations and the data from these expeditions and the records of Greenwich were put into tables.

Both methods were tested thoroughly - indeed, Captain Cook was testing both on the voyage in which he discovered Australia's east coast - but chronometers were prohibitively expensive. And so with ships across the world using the lunar distance method based on calculations from Greenwich, it made sense to make Greenwich the starting place for time.

The stories and the theories are explored brilliantly inside the observatory.

The charts and chronometers are still there, alongside telescopes belonging to famous astronomers and more modern interactive displays on how time is measured now.

It's enough to make you suddenly interested in astronomy and, of course, that is the point. Especially this year - 2009 has been designated as the International Year of Astronomy, partly because it's 400 years since Galileo first got out his telescope.

Throughout the year, there are special events taking place across the world and, given the Royal Observatory's key place in astronomical history, it's unsurprising to learn it has a packed program. The attached Planetarium is hosting a series of shows, ranging from Invaders Of Mars - which shows footage of the red planet from various space missions - to astronomer-led observations of the night sky.

Other events include an astronomy photographer of the year competition, a show on the solar system's frozen moons and ice caps and a series of talks from NASA scientists about Saturn in June. There will also be explorations of the links between science fact and science fiction in August and September plus musical performances during the astronomy and the arts season in November.

But even without the special events, it's worth taking the time to visit the home of time.

Entry to the Royal Observatory is free, although there is a charge for some of the special events. Entry to the Planetarium costs £6 ($9.40). See nmm.ac.uk/places/royal-observatory.

STELLAR YEAR

The International Year of Astronomy is a global effort and there are numerous events that a trip can be planned around.

Arguably the main project is 100 Hours of Astronomy, which will take place from April 2-5 around the planet.

Special events include the opening of a major new observatory and planetarium complex in Abu Dhabi with exclusive chances to inspect meteorites and professional telescopes.

In Seattle, April has been designated as Earth Observation From Space Month. This will include presentations from scientists who specialise in checking out our planet from satellite footage as well as plenty of hands-on activities. There are also telescope viewings in Ahmedabad, lunar photography workshops in Munich and night sky tours in Byron Bay.

More events can be found at 100hoursofastronomy.org.

SPOTS TO WATCH

* Kitt Peak Observatory, Arizona

With 23 high-end telescopes, this desert complex to the south-west of Tucson is absolutely enormous. It houses the world's largest collection of optical research telescopes, making it something of a geek paradise. Kitt Peak (www.noao.edu/outreach/kpoutreach.html) organises guided tours three times a day and also has a nightly observation program. In the northern spring, the observatory will start a public nights program in its walk-in 0.9-metre telescope - one of the world's key research telescopes. The night includes a dinner, a short lecture on the history of the telescope and complex plus the chance to do some serious stargazing.

* The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

The Franklin Institute (fi.edu) has a permanent exhibition called Space Command, which features a 2.4-metre telescope, simulations of views out of a space station window and the chance to explore the Earth (including your own house) using a satellite tracking device. A planetarium is also on site. However, the big draw this year is likely to be the exhibition Galileo, The Medici And The Age of Astronomy. One of the two remaining Galileo telescopes will be the centrepiece, but it will also feature other instruments belonging to the father of astronomy and explore how his research changed our view of the universe. The exhibition runs from April 4 to September 7.

* Parkes Observatory, NSW

The Parkes Observatory (www.parkes.atnf.csiro.au) has an anniversary of its own to celebrate this year. It's 40 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and the famous footage of the Apollo landing was received at Parkes before being transmitted to the rest of the world. In celebration and as part of its efforts to contribute to the International Year of Astronomy, the observatory is hosting open days on July 18 and 19. These will involve telescope tours, ask-the-expert sessions and talks from astronomers. Numbers are limited, so book well in advance.

See astronomy2009.org for information about events around the world.

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